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Concerns about citizen privacy grow as states create 'Matrix' database

NEW YORK -- While privacy worries are frustrating the Pentagon's plans for a far-reaching database to combat terrorism, a similar project is quietly taking shape with the participation of more than a dozen states -- and $12 million in federal funds. The database project, created so states and local authorities can track would-be terrorists as well as criminal fugitives, is being built and housed in the offices of a private company but will be open to some federal law enforcers and perhaps even US intelligence agencies.

Dubbed Matrix, the database has been in use for a year and a half in Florida, where police praise the crime-fighting tool as nimble and exhaustive. It cross-references the state's driving records and restricted police files with billions of pieces of public and private data, including credit and property records.

But privacy advocates, officials in two states, and a competing data vendor have branded Matrix as playing fast and loose with Americans' private details.

They say that Matrix houses restricted police and government files on colossal databases that sit in the offices of Seisint Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla., company founded by a millionaire who police say flew planeloads of drugs into the country in the early 1980s.

"It's federally funded, it's guarded by state police but it's on private property? That's very interesting," said Christopher Slobogin, a University of Florida law professor and expert in privacy issues.

Matrix was initially intended to track terrorists, as was the Pentagon's Terrorism Information Awareness project, which sparked a congressional uproar and got watered down.

As a dozen more states pool their criminal and government files with Florida's, Matrix databases are expanding in size and power. Organizers hope to coax more states to join, touting its usefulness in everyday policing.

Federal and state law enforcement officials in Massachusetts could not confirm whether the Bay State was in the program.

It gives investigators access to personal data, such as boat registrations and property deeds, without the government possibly violating the 1974 Privacy Act by owning the files.

California and Texas dropped out, citing, among other things, worries over housing sensitive files at Seisint. A competing data vendor, ChoicePoint, decided not to bid on the project, saying it lacked adequate privacy safeguards.

Aspects of the project appear designed to steer around federal laws that bar the US government from collecting routine data on Americans. For instance, the project is billed as a tool for state and local police, but organizers are considering giving access to the Central Intelligence Agency, said Phil Ramer, special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's intelligence office.

In the 1970s, Congress barred the CIA from scanning files on average Americans, after the agency was cited for spying on civil rights leaders. Florida officials have acknowledged that users of Matrix, which stands for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, can "monitor innocent citizens." Globe correspondent Jared Stearns contributed to this report.

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