While the UK debates its national ID card proposal, reader TJ alerts me to this Associated Press report from the United States that illustrates how the real issue in in contemporary political debates about privacy is that large centralised identity databases can be used to automate discrimination.

The Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (MATRIX) is a criminal intelligence database developed for Florida law enforcement authorities with Federal funding. The database includes a statistical indicator of the likelyhood of individuals being terrorists.

This “terrorism quotient” — which was a key selling point of the system for Seisint, the database’s developers — brought 120,000 people under increased scrutiny of various authorities:

The scoring incorporated such factors as age, gender, ethnicity, credit history, “investigational data,” information about pilot and driver licenses, and connections to “dirty” addresses known to have been used by other suspects.

According to Seisint’s presentation, dated January 2003 and marked confidential, the 120,000 names with the highest scores were given to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, FBI, Secret Service and Florida state police. (Later, those agencies would help craft the software that queries Matrix.)

“Investigations were triggered and arrests were made by INS and other agencies,” the presentation added. Two bullet points stated: “Several arrests within one week” and “Scores of other arrests.” It does not provide details of when and where the investigations and arrests took place.

Although those involved in the project insist that the “high terrorist factor” (HTF) feature is no longer part of the database, the AP could not find documents confirming this:

The AP has received thousands of pages of Matrix documents in records requests this year, including meeting minutes and presentation materials that discuss the project in detail. Not one indicates that Matrix planners decided against using the statistical method of determining an individual’s propensity for terrorism.

When the AP specifically requested documents indicating the scoring system was scrapped, the general counsel’s office for Florida state police said it could not uncover any.

Even so, people involved with Matrix pledge that the statistical method was removed from the final product.

“I’ll put my 26 years of law enforcement experience on the line. It is not in there,” said Mark Zadra, chief investigator for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

He said Matrix, which has 4 billion records, merely speeds access to material that police have always been able to get from disparate sources, and does not automatically or proactively finger suspects.

Hopefully Zadra is right. A statistical indicator is more than a mere aggregation of data. Its algorithm generates a new, probabilistic datum that is used to justify action against individuals whose only crime may be to share characteristics with known criminals or terrorists. In the case of ethnicity, we recognise this as the false logic of racism: projecting assumed negative group characteristics on individauls. It demonstrate how false it is that you have nothing to fear from surviellance technologies if you have nothing to hide.

The American Civil Liberties Union has more information about the MATRIX project.