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MATRIX reloaded? Utah rethinks issue

The state may decide to rejoin controversial database

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A state commission on Thursday began wrestling with whether Utah should return to the controversial MATRIX consortium or some other law enforcement information-sharing system — though members realize that privacy and oversight concerns abound.

The Utah Technology Commission wants its staff to look into several aspects of the issue, including whether Utah's Government Records Access Management Act needs to be updated and whether legislation is needed to make the commission or some other entity the state's oversight agency.

Utah pulled out of MATRIX — the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange — in March after a review committee recommended that the state get out of the database information-sharing system until "adequate oversight and appropriate privacy safeguards" are established.

MATRIX combined information from local and state agencies, such as criminal backgrounds, motor vehicle registrations and driver's license records, with hundreds of publicly available databases. Former Gov. Mike Leavitt got Utah involved without the knowledge of many other top elected officials, and Gov. Olene Walker pulled the plug on Utah's participation.

Walker and the review committee want legislative guidance on whether Utah should rejoin.

"Even though Utah pulled out of MATRIX, there are other MATRIXes out there, and there are a lot of other information systems that Utah will explore . . . ," said Ed McConkie, executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. "This is an opportune time and a necessary issue, one that the review committee felt was not within its scope."

McConkie described MATRIX as a useful tool that will allow law enforcement agencies to "do what (they) already can do faster, much faster." A few commissioners praised the program's goal but wondered about privacy safeguards and oversight issues.

"As we've dealt and looked into this, the aspect of what's brought MATRIX to birth, I think, has merit and is worth pursuing," said the commission's co-chairman, Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara. "It's the implementation of it, I guess, that was probably the undoing and was a concern about how it went about."

Important issues need to be addressed up-front, he said. "I realize we may be attempting to bayonet the wounded, but it is an issue, and it's an issue that warrants discussion of policy in place. The old adage 'look before you leap' may bear fruit on this issue," he said.

Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, said the commission is in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

"If we're in a position where we need to mine data and find this information and are protecting privacy, MATRIX is a good thing," he said. "If we're in a hindsight of a terrorist activity where we should have known that that person was within our borders and we should have known that that situation could have happened or we could have had that information through law enforcement sources that may have prevented some of this . . . then we're also at a loss."

MATRIX, which is down to five participating states from an original 13, has only a board of directors for oversight. The board includes representatives from participating states.

Clark suggested that law enforcement not be the oversight entity, adding that perhaps the state chief information officer serve in that capacity. The state's chief information officer, Val Oveson, also a member of the commission, suggested the technology commission itself or the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

As for the government records act, McConkie said it is not keeping up with changes in a tech-field world. Stressing that it was his personal opinion rather than that of the CCJJ or the MATRIX review committee, McConkie said, "I don't think GRAMA (government records act) is adequate for e-mail, let alone these kind of data systems and sharing we've talked about today. . . . It does need to be seriously reviewed in whatever context — the whole picture and whatever Utah decides to do as it participates in information-sharing."

Margaret Plane, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, commended the technology commission for discussing MATRIX issues. "I think it's a vital conversation that I think needs to happen, and I'm glad it's happening now," Plane said. "Had it happened sooner, maybe things would be different."

Plane suggested that the technology commission not only discuss penalties for GRAMA abuse but also for abusing databases.

E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com