The Matrix 

An expensive government program was doomed from the start. Jim Petro's just the last to know.

Unlike Ohio's Jim Petro, the top lawman in Texas can - smell a con. - JACK KUSTRON/ PHOTOJ.COM
The letter from Texas got straight to the point. The state "will no longer participate in the Matrix project," wrote Marshall Caskey, chief of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The news must have been a blow to Hank Asher. His company, Seisint, had been peddling its Matrix computer database to police agencies across the land. It was designed to search vast records -- everything from criminal histories to consumer preferences and fishing licenses -- to help police hunt criminals and terrorists.

By the time the letter was sent in May 2003, Matrix had access to 30 billion pieces of data. It still wasn't enough. Asher hoped to make Matrix the largest, most powerful database of its kind, eventually drawing records from every state in the union.

But with a behemoth like Texas pulling out, the entire project was threatened. After all, a database is only as good as the records it holds. And other states would be less inclined to buy into it if the biggest among them were missing.

Caskey didn't care. He worried about spending $1.6 million annually on Matrix when Texas already faced a $3 billion deficit. He also smelled a con. Why, he wondered, should Texas send all its records "at our expense to a private company to sell back to us"?

Other states wondered the same.

When Matrix went national in 2002, 16 states agreed to take part. Most have since bailed. Like Texas, they worried about the program's cost. They also worried about running afoul of the Constitution -- and Asher's criminal history. Now, only five states remain in the program. Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro is one of just a handful of elected officials still committed to Matrix. And this month, he's prepared to seek over $2 million a year from taxpayers to pay for it.

The problems with Matrix began even before it was conceived. Prior to entering the data-collection business, Asher piloted planes loaded with cocaine into Florida. He later admitted membership in a smuggling ring that brought over $150 million worth of coke to the United States in a single year. But he was able to walk on the charges by ratting out his friends in cases in Gainesville and Chicago.

Next, Asher founded a series of database companies. One, DBT Online, played a crucial role in Florida's controversial 2000 presidential election. The company was hired in 1998 to remove convicted felons from the state's voting rolls. It wound up "scrubbing" about 8,000 voters who had never been convicted of felonies. Somewhat suspiciously, they were mostly blacks who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.

When Asher created Matrix in 2001, he committed two early blunders. First, he named his brainchild after the popular film in which computers control the earth by sucking the life out of humans. "The number-one issue here is the name," says Jim Canepa, Ohio's chief deputy attorney general. "Because it's electronic, people freak out."

The second was Asher's now-infamous "terrorist quotient." In the weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, Asher tried to sell Matrix to the Department of Justice. He boasted of creating a profile of a potential terrorist, then using Matrix to check that profile against billions of records. Asher developed a list of 419 potential suspects, six of whom turned out to be among the September 11 hijackers. The results were so impressive that the Department of Homeland Security gave Asher $8 million to run a pilot project through March 2005.

Unfortunately, since Asher's methods involved searching the private records of millions of people without a specific reason to suspect anyone, it amounted to profiling, which is illegal. The Fourth Amendment bars police from investigating people without first having probable cause and getting a search warrant.

"They can do huge searches about your life, about my life, about our families, without ever getting a warrant," says ACLU lawyer Carrie Davis. "That's a scary prospect."

The last two years have seen various attempts to cleanse Matrix's reputation, with varying success. Asher was forced to sell his interest in Matrix and Seisint after his smuggling past was discovered by a Florida newspaper. Last summer, Lexis Nexis of Dayton bought Seisint for $775 million.

But by then, only a few states remained interested.

Petro believes Matrix still can help detectives find potential suspects in minutes, rather than requesting information from distant states and waiting weeks for a reply.

Then again, the value of a national database remains to be seen, especially when most of the nation isn't participating. Now that most states have dropped out, Ohio will also have to pay substantially more -- likely over $2 million a year -- to keep Matrix running. "It's a very expensive program," says Davis. "And all these records are already out there and accessible to law enforcement."

Petro's pro-Matrix stance has made him a punching bag for civil libertarians, who warn that Matrix will trample privacy rights. Seisint says Matrix has been stripped of its power to run continuous searches without probable cause. "The concept of profiling is unacceptable and inappropriate, so the direction of the program has changed," Canepa says.

But given law enforcement's history of occasionally skirting the law, civil liberties groups aren't buying it. "How do we know they're telling the truth?" asks Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU, which is suing the Michigan State Police over its participation in Matrix. "They're doing this without any checks and balances, without any oversight whatsoever."

Canepa understands the fears of Big Brother, but he believes they can be overcome. "This is not a popular thing," he says. "You either have backbone and demystify it to the critics, or you bail out. Jim Petro is not recoiling or bailing out."

Yet one man's backbone is another man's folly. Even if he can convince Ohioans that he won't be spying on them -- or spending millions on another flawed database -- Petro still must convince members of his own party that it's worth the price tag.

Legislators are already looking to bridge a $4 billion budget gap. And when the federal government's money for Matrix runs out this month, lawmakers may not be keen on using their own. "If we want to spend an additional $2 million on the Matrix system, we'd have to find the money somewhere else," says state Senator Gary Cates, a West Chester Republican who sits on the Senate Finance Committee. "We can't just pull the money out of thin air."

More by Chris Maag


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