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Published: Friday, 4/9/2004

Database search system debated

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Information in a controversial database searching system already is publicly available but not coordinated so law-enforcement officials can easily use it to investigate crimes or thwart terrorism, the head of the Ohio Highway Patrol told a local trucking group yesterday.

"Right now, the public library has better information than we do," Col. Paul McClellan, the patrol's superintendent, told the Toledo Trucking Association at the Toledo Club. "When I go home at night, I can find out more about people by surfing the Internet on my home computer than I can in my office."

The MATRIX search system, which combs public records like driver's licenses, vehicle registrations, court records, and land transaction information, is available only to law-enforcement personnel with a specific investigative purpose, the colonel said.

The system, whose name stands for Multi-State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, is managed by a Florida firm under contract to five states that are piloting it, including Ohio and Michigan. So far, however, Ohio is not fully participating by contributing photos or Social Security numbers from its licensing records, the colonel said.

Civil libertarians argue that the system is an open invitation for police to track the behavior of ordinary citizens, regardless of their involvement in criminal or terrorist activities.

MATRIX effectively is "an advanced surveillance system" designed not only to "build dossiers on all of our lives," but also to allow rapid mathematical searches for supposed irregular patterns that might identify troublemakers, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Judgments about reasonable suspicion of criminal activity are fundamentally human judgments that cannot now be made accurately by computers," the ACLU said in a recent position paper on the subject.

"They make it sound like such an ominous project, but it's not. It's very open," responded Sal Hernandez, vice president of Seisint, Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla.-based information services firm that pioneered the system and manages it for its multistate clients. MATRIX data represent "things the cops already have, but it's putting it all in one place and letting the police access it faster."

Dean Kaplan, the trucking association's president who, with his wife, operates a local trucking firm specializing in hazardous materials transport, said his main concern about the system would be if its capability "gets into the wrong hands." Seisint asserts that the system is protected by the most advanced online security available.

Colonel McClellan, meanwhile, said that availability of such a system could have brought more law-enforcement attention sooner to the recent spate of Columbus-area car shootings that included the killing Nov. 25 of Gail Knisley on I-270. Only after Mrs. Knisley's death did area police start comparing notes and realize that each had received similar reports of gunshots hitting vehicles on I-270 and other nearby roads, he said.

A system like MATRIX would have allowed various agencies to enter what they knew about the case and start narrowing the field of suspects sooner, he said. Charles C. McCoy, Jr., 28, who was arrested March 17 in Las Vegas, pleaded not guilty Monday to charges accusing him of 12 of 24 shootings dating to May, 2003.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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