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Connecting The Dots After 9/11

Condro, a royal servant, in the destroyed royal palace complex in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, June 1, 2006.
AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim
Of all the big "What Ifs" surrounding 9/11, the biggest by far is "What if our lawmen had connected all those dots?" Dots like the fact that some of the hijackers reserved their plane tickets with the same credit card; shared the same frequent flier numbers, lived in the same house and got their visas at the same place. Some dots practically screamed to be connected, say analysts.

"The really distressing thing about 9/11 is that we had the names of two of the hijackers, and they made those reservations and flew on those planes using their true names," said Jim Dempsey, Center for Democracy and Technology.

Well now there is such a dot connector and it's in a non-descript Florida office building inside a bank of computers. Essentially it combines criminal, public and commercial information into a single database that cops used to only dream of.

Dubbed the "Matrix" for Multi-State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, it started in Florida right after 9-11. Now, with $12 million in federal funding, it's being used in 13 states. Two others, California and Texas, dropped out over privacy concerns.

What it does is help police gather all those electronic bits of information and make sense of them. To cite their favorite example: Want to know how many brown-haired men own a red pickup within a mile of here? Ask the Matrix.

In theory there's no limit to what Matrix could learn about you: from your driver's license comes your picture and vital statistics. Property and vehicle records tell all about your car and home. Criminal records about your past. Business licenses reveal your partners, marriage licenses your spouse, or divorce filings from your ex. Civil lawsuits are there, even your magazine subscriptions and the cost and size of that kitchen add-on.

The problem, of course, is how do you know who to ask about? The hijackers didn't exactly advertise. There are also Big Brother questions to answer.

"Who gets to collect the information? Under what standard? How long do they get to keep it? How do they use it? Who can they disclose it to?" asked Dempsey.

And, most importantly, can we be comfortable with a computer system that gathers details on all of us -- in the hope of uncovering just a few?