THE BLOG

There's a Drug Smuggler in Florida Who Knows Everything About You

Remember the Florida election of 2000 when a private database company scrubbed thousands of eligible voters from the rolls? Well now one of the co-founders of Database Technologies is back in the headlines -- he's working with law enforcement agents in Florida to create what may soon expand into a national surveillance system. -- Democracy Now, August 7, 2003

Well it's three years later, the government is spying on Americans, phone companies are denying they gave the feds our records, and our last, great hope is Arlen Specter - who just sold us down the river. Perhaps it's time to revisit a guy named Hank Asher.

In early 2005, Michael Shnayerson wondered, in his Vanity Fair piece, why no one was calling Asher a hero for inventing the ultimate surveillance program. I'm now wondering why no one's subpoenaed him.

In 2000, Hank's company, DBT, caused 57,000 innocent, mostly African Americans to lose their vote by naming them as felons in Florida, thereby fixing the presidential election. Three years later, the DEA would learn of Hank's smuggling planeloads of cocaine from the Bahamas in the 80's, and he would be forced out of his company. Friends in high places made sure he never faced charges.

Hank founded another personal data gathering venture, Choicepoint, which was mysteriously hacked into, causing thousands of people to have their identities stolen. Hank was kind enough to offer the victims "credit monitoring services" for life. Then he sold the company, pocketing about $148 million. The new owners hit him with a lawsuit alleging major theft of source codes and hardware. Hank, you see, was opening up a new company across the street: Seisint.

Although he was a Democrat, Hank suddenly started writing big checks to Governor Jeb Bush and the Republican party. Two days after 9/11, coincidentally, he was sipping a martini in his $8 million Boca Raton home, when he had the genius idea to use his massive database to see if he could create a "terrorist suspect list."

By cross-referencing the 30 billion personal records Seisint had access to, he came up with 419 suspect names, and his pal Jeb Bush flew him to Washington so they could both show Vice President Cheney. Amazingly, according to Hank, five of the names were already being investigated by the FBI, and the sixth turned out to be one of the hijackers. Sold! Homeland Security threw millions at Asher for his system, which he dubbed - no kidding - The Matrix. But there was one crucial element to the deal: Asher, in partnership with the highly esteemed state of Florida, would retain control of The Matrix.

The Matrix can scan everyone's records, not just criminals. Need to find every guy in America in his 20's with brown hair and a red truck who recently filed for divorce? The Matrix can do it in no time. Of course, it can be used for much darker purposes. But the real evil genius in this plan was that it would be controlled by the states, thereby skirting congressional oversight. After all, the Bush administration had been burned by John Poindexter (a convicted felon himself) and his creepy Total Information Awareness program, which the Senate shut down in January 2003, citing concern for civil liberties.

"Now the same ideas that inspired TIA have reappeared in an alarming new program that has been dubbed The Matrix ("Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange"). Run by a private corporation on behalf of a cooperative network of state governments, The Matrix, which is already up and running, is a "data surveillance" program every bit as dangerous and Orwellian as Total Information Awareness." -- The ACLU, 2003

The Register concurred: "The perverse dream of integrating law enforcement, military intelligence and vast databases of virtually everything done by virtually every citizen is coming to fruition, only under state, not federal, auspices."

Last April, Homeland Security announced they were cutting funding to The Matrix, but shrewdly left open the door that individual states were welcome to fund it. Most of the original participating states, however, had abandoned the Matrix due to "growing opposition to this kind of intrusive, investigatory technique," according to the ACLU. Which states remained? Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The triplets.

Ironically, the type of fishing that The Matrix has been doing for the last couple years is something that John Poindexter argued against as national security advisor to Reagan. He tried to implement a new security classification called, "unclassified but sensitive" because, he said, if you put together a lot of unclassified, publicly avaliable information, it could become classified information.

Maybe Poindexter had a point. Maybe that's an argument privacy advocates should consider using. And Maybe Verizon and BellSouth didn't give the NSA our records after all. Maybe they gave them to someone who gave them to the NSA. A private contractor perhaps. But don't ask Hank. He sold The Matrix, and his company, to Lexis Nexis for $775 million.