New technology that helps law enforcement officials track sexual predators, terrorists and other criminals has been an effective tool that has led to thousands of arrests, but privacy experts are concerned about the convergence of information used to obtain those results.
At the center of the controversy is Hank Asher, referred to by one of his employees as a “mad scientist.” Asher, by all accounts, is a computer genius who capitalized on the power of data mining and combining databases.
Asher amazed himself in 1992 when he created Auto Track, a program that integrated information in public databases such as state motor vehicle bureaus with private sources from banks and other businesses that contained Social Security numbers and additional information not available to the public.
When Asher ran his own name through Auto Track he received a long list of “associated” people. The list included “my ex-wife and her newest victim. I thought, ‘what have I done?’” He then limited sales of Auto Track to reporters and insurance investigators. He provided it free to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Asher’s admitted history of drug smuggling made law enforcement officials wary. In 1980 and ‘81, Asher piloted several flights of cocaine from the Bahamas to the United States. He avoided prosecution by cooperating with drug enforcement agents.
That history led the FBI and DEA to suspend their use of Auto Track in 1999; they were concerned that Asher’s company, DBT, could potentially monitor activities in current investigations. DBT’s directors forced Asher to sell his ownership stake in order to salvage those law enforcement contracts, and he received about $147 million from the sale.
In the wake of 9/11, Asher wrote a computer program that culled through hundreds of millions of people looking for the terrorists involved in the attacks. Among the list of 419 possible suspects, the program hit on 9/11 pilot Marwan al-Shehhi. Asher’s attempts to demonstrate the program to Bush administration officials were fruitless until he paid former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani $2 million in December 2002 and gave a $15,000 watch to a California sheriff serving on a federal homeland security panel.
About a month later, Asher demonstrated his program to then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Homeland Security director Tom Ridge. That meeting generated $12 million in federal funding for a pilot program through Asher’s latest company, Seisint, Inc.
What resulted was MATRIX – the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, though controversy over costs and privacy laws resulted in some states dropping out of the project. “There is a lot of scientific evidence that you cannot predict the actions of terrorists or criminals or anyone based on their computer profiles,” said Chris Calabrese of the ACLU’s liberty and technology project. “That’s a very dangerous thing that could cause people a lot of harm.”
Seisint also developed a massive integrated database called Accurint, which was designed to “dramatically improve law enforcement’s ability to obtain up-to-date as well as historical and background information on individual subjects. The product’s artificial intelligence provides aliases, historical addresses, relatives, associates, neighbors and assets.”
The MATRIX project ended in June 2005, but Asher had sold Seisint the previous year to the parent corporation of LexisNexis, making $260 million. Asher’s current company, TLO, has leased a 143,000-square-foot complex in Boca Raton, Florida. TLO provides space for investigators with the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office and other agencies that work on cases involving sex crimes against children.
The computers and servers for law enforcement are not accessible to Asher and his company, which provides a free tracking system to track children in state care. He garnered the support of John Walsh, host of “America’s Most Wanted.” But when TLO produced a 3-page list of databases that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said would help identify child predators, people got spooked.
The list included financial records, credit card data and even Blockbuster video rental accounts. “He wants to have every scrap of personal data that he can acquire in any and everybody,” said Marion Hammer, past president of the National Rifle Association. “I know that he has people working to find ways to get data from state agencies and of course there is data that we would never want him to get his hands on.”
LexisNexis sued Asher in April 2009, claiming he had violated a non-compete agreement from when Seisint was sold. Asher countered that he was simply giving away software called FairPlay to law enforcement agencies to help them track child porn on peer-to-peer networks and identify child predators. The lawsuit and a countersuit filed by Asher were withdrawn in August 2009 after the president of the National Association of Attorneys General announced he might form a task force to investigate LexisNexis for antitrust violations, specifically citing the company’s litigation against Asher.
The latest product that Asher is developing is called AK (Accurint Killer). He hopes it will change the business of assessing risk and investigating fraud. It may flag potential terrorists, too. He has hired a former FBI agent, former Assistant U.S. Attorney, former commissioner of the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement, former sheriff and former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth to assist with the venture.
“Our new systems have the capacity to address tomorrow’s risks and threats,” said Asher, who is seeking to generate substantial revenue by combining his technology with people’s personal information. “I’ve never seen financial opportunities like this in my lifetime. I think [AK] will do several billion dollars a year.”
Even if that rosy outlook is true, though, Asher’s most recent data mining project will likely come at a significant cost to people’s privacy.
Sources: St. Petersburg Times, Associated Press, South Florida Business Journal, www.legalnewsline.com, www.allbusiness.com
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