U.S. News & World Report
(Cont'd) Spies Among Us
Tue May 2, 2006 02:43

"The PTE methodology was flawed," says a federal intelligence official familiar with the process, "and it's no longer being used." Nonetheless, these "threat elements" have, in some cases, become the basis for intelligence gathering by local and state police. Concern over the process prompted the ACLU in New Jersey to sue the state, demanding that eight towns turn over documents on PTEs identified by local police.

Another source of alarm for civil liberties watchdogs is the explosion in police computing power. Spurred by a 2004 White House directive ordering better information sharing, the Justice Department has poured tens of millions of dollars into expanding and tying together law enforcement databases and networks. In many respects, the changes are long overdue, yanking police into the 21st century and letting them use the tools that bankers, private investigators, and journalists routinely employ. From TV shows like 24 and CSI, Americans are accustomed to scenes of police accessing the most arcane data with a few keyboard clicks. The reality couldn't be more different. Law enforcement was slow to get on the technology bandwagon, and its information systems have developed into a patchwork of networks and databases that cannot talk to one another--even within the same county. Rap sheets, prison records, and court files are often all on different systems. This means that days or even weeks can pass before court-issued warrants show up on police wanted lists--leaving criminals out on the streets.

States and cities began linking up their systems in the 1990s, but since 9/11 their progress has been dramatic. At least 38 states are working on some 200 projects tying together their criminal justice records. Concerned over disjointed police networks around its key bases, the Navy's Criminal Investigative Service is funding projects in Norfolk, Va., and four other port cities, creating huge "data warehouses" stocked with crime files from dozens of law enforcement agencies. The FBI is also running pilot database centers in the St. Louis and Seattle areas in which the bureau makes its case files available to police. To local cops who have long complained about the FBI's lack of sharing, the development is downright revolutionary. "It made people nervous as hell, including me," says the FBI's Thomas Bush, who oversaw the initial program and now runs the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division. "The technical aspect is easy, but you need to have the trust of the community and the security to safeguard the system."

The benefits of all this are undeniable. Armed with the latest information, police will be better able to catch crooks and spot criminal trends. But in this digital age, with so much data available about individual Americans, the lines between what is acceptable investigation and what is intrusive spying can quickly grow unclear. Consider the case of Matrix. Backed by $12 million in federal funds, at its peak in 2004 the Matrix system tapped into law enforcement agencies from a dozen states. Using "data mining" technology, its search engine ripped through billions of public records and matched them with police files, creating instant dossiers. In the days after 9/11, Matrix researchers searched out individuals with what they called "high terrorist factor" scores, providing federal and state authorities a list of 120,000 "suspects."

Law enforcement officials loved the system and made nearly 2 million queries to it. But what alarmed privacy advocates was the mixing of public data with police files, profiling techniques that smacked of fishing expeditions, and the fact that all these sensitive data were housed in a private corporation. Hounded by bad publicity and concerned that Matrix might be breaking privacy laws, states began pulling out of the system. Then, early last year, the Justice Department quietly cut off funding.

Matrix no longer exists, but similar projects are underway across the country, including one run by the California Department of Justice. Having learned from Matrix's mistakes, users are employing what tech specialists call "distributed computing." Instead of creating a single, vast database, they rapidly access information from sites in different states, often with a single query. The effect is essentially the same. "If people knew what we were looking at, they'd throw a fit," says a database trainer at one prominent police department.

Hacker's discovery. Another concern is the quality--and security--of all that information. In Minnesota, the state-run Multiple Jurisdiction Network Organization ran into controversy after linking together nearly 200 law enforcement agencies and over 8 million records. State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a Republican who oversees privacy issues, found much to be alarmed about when a local hacker contacted her after breaking into the system. The hacker had yanked out files on Holberg herself, showing she was classified as a "suspect" based on a neighbor's old complaint about where she parked her car. "We had a real mess in Minnesota," Holberg later wrote. "There was no effective policy for individuals to review the data in the system, let alone correct inaccuracies." In late 2003, state officials shut down the system amid concerns that it violated privacy laws in its handling of records on juvenile offenders and gun permits.

Such problems threaten to grow as law enforcement expands its reach with increased intelligence and computing power. The key to avoiding trouble, say experts, is ensuring that concerns over privacy and civil liberties are dealt with head-on. In a recent advisory aimed at police intelligence units, the Department of Justice stressed that success in safeguarding civil liberties "depends on appointing a high-level member of your agency to champion the initiative." But that message apparently hasn't gotten through, judging from the response at a conference sponsored by the Justice Department a few weeks back on information sharing. Among the crowd of some 200 local and state officials were intelligence officers, database managers, and chiefs of police. When a speaker asked who in the audience was working with privacy officials, not a single hand went up.

As Washington doles out millions of dollars for police intelligence, its reliance on voluntary guidelines may backfire, warn critics, who worry that abuses could wreck the important work that needs to be done. "We're still diddling around," says police technology expert Wormeli. "We're not setting clear policy on what we put in our databases. Should a patrol officer in Tallahassee be able to look at my credit report? Most people would say, 'Hell, no.'" Current regulations on criminal intelligence, he adds, were written before the computer age. "They were great in their day, but they need to be updated and expanded."

Civil liberties watchdogs like attorney Gutman, meanwhile, want to know how efforts to stop al Qaeda have ended up targeting animal rights advocates, labor leaders, and antiwar protesters. "You've got all this money and all this equipment--you're going to find someone to use it on," he warns. "If there aren't any external checks, there's going to be an inevitable drift toward abuses." But boosters of intelligence-led policing say that today's cops are too smart to repeat mistakes of the old Red Squads. "We're trying to develop policies to build trust and relationships, not spy," says Illinois State Police Deputy Director Kenneth Bouche. "We've learned a better way to do it." Perhaps. But for now, at least, the jury on this case is still out.

With Monica M. Ekman and Angie C. Marek


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