Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Net's Master Data-miner

VANITY FAIR: The Net's Master Data-miner
When maverick cyber-pioneer Hank Asher invented MATRIX—a controversial personal-information database—he gave the government a powerful tool for tracking terrorists. So why isn't he a hero?

Two days after 9/11, Hank Asher poured himself a wineglass-size martini and sat down to dinner in his mansion in Boca Raton, Florida. His houseguest, a former drug agent named Bill Shrewsbury, knew Asher well enough to see how frustrated he was. Shrewsbury had met his host during the latter's cocaine-smuggling period in the mid-1980s. Asher was living in the Bahamas back then, very much adrift. He'd helped Shrewsbury persuade a bunch of fellow smugglers to take early retirement. Now Shrewsbury, like a number of other former agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Florida Department of Law Enforcement (F.D.L.E.), and U.S. Secret Service, was working for Asher. A lot had changed in 15 years.

"Suddenly Hank says, 'I can find these people,'" by which he meant the 9/11 hijackers. "'I know how to do it,'" Shrewsbury recalls. "It was like lightning bolts coming out of his head."

At eight p.m., Asher sat down at the computer in his baronial master bedroom and started writing programming code. He was there at 10, when Shrewsbury went to bed. He was still there at 6:30 Friday morning, when Shrewsbury popped his head in to say hello.

That day at noon, Asher ran a program on the 450 million individuals in his vast assemblage of electronic databases. The databases were like books in a library. What he'd done all night was write algorithms to flag data in those books, data that might be associated with a terrorist; then the computer matched names with the data. The 9/11 terrorists, for example, had likely come to the United States within the last year or two. So a nonresident Muslim who started generating records only in that time—phone bills, utility bills, driver's licenses—was potentially suspect. A Muslim who'd lived 10 years in the same U.S. city and been registered to vote that whole time was off the hook.

Anyone who had a certain number of factors got a score above zero. Only 120,000 names had any score at all. But, of those, 419 had very high scores.

By now, the F.B.I. had a list of suspects drawn from the passenger manifests of 9/11's four ill-fated flights. But none of those names had been released to the public that Friday when Asher came up with his High Terrorist Factor list—from the program that would later be given the acronym MATRIX, for Multi-state Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange. The list was forwarded through Asher's law-enforcement contacts to Brian Stafford, head of the U.S. Secret Service, and to a senior F.B.I. agent. The feds were stunned.

According to Asher, five of the names on his list were under investigation by the F.B.I., and one was on those passenger manifests—Marwan al-Shehhi, pilot of the second jet that hit the World Trade Center. Asher had current and prior addresses for al-Shehhi and the rest of those 419 names. He had bank records, motor-vehicle records, and driver's licenses, complete with digital photographs. He had aviation licenses. He had credit histories. He had the names of neighbors and landlords, along with their digital pictures.

That Sunday morning, a senior F.B.I. agent, accompanied by an assistant U.S. attorney, knocked on Asher's door. And so began the most extraordinary chapter in Asher's roller-coaster life. MATRIX would soon be heralded as a state-of-the-art terrorist-tracking tool by Vice President Dick Cheney and Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, as well as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and senior law-enforcement officials around the country. But it would also stir loud cries of protest across the political spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) to former Republican congressman Bob Barr, leader of the push to impeach President Clinton, all proclaiming MATRIX a sinister, Orwellian threat to civil liberties and individual privacy.

Amid the scrutiny that followed, Asher's past would come back to haunt him. Asher's own company would force him to resign. Yet MATRIX would have a profound effect on law enforcement. And Asher, bittersweet as his latest triumph might be, would emerge as the reigning genius of data mining, a cyber-realm as dazzling as it is disturbing.

Wow! This is just a super fascinating article about a very interesting, principled, and intelligent individual. Great introduction to the idea of data mining. It's interesting to me that the information he was able to accumulate about people was mainly public record information. Usually a story like this would draw "big brother" parallels, but actually the ability to collect large amounts of information on people is not soley an ability of the government. Same with surveillance cameras, which anyone can buy and use. Technologies like these could also be used by non government actors. It is creepy to think about how much data is out there about each one of us, but I guess the bottom line is that it is better that this information gathering power be widely distributed, since it will be abused less that way. We will all have to accept that we live in a world where secrets are harder to keep.

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