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as seen on phillyBurbs.com

Enter the Matrix
Computers never forget your misdeeds and politicians will be able to dig up dirt on you with a new system.

I'm not proud to say it, but I got arrested for drunk-driving back in 1990.

There was no accident. No one was injured. It was late at night and I was pulled over after turning right at a very long red light in the center of a small town, despite a sign saying it was illegal.  A blood test found I had a .11 blood-alcohol level. At that time Pennsylvania's legal limit was .10.

I was stupid. It didn't help matters that I was the local newspaper's court reporter back then.

The judge actually woke up and singled me out amid the crowd of other first-time offenders he was sentencing simultaneously. "I don't know about this," he said. "You're the one who's always telling me I should be tough on criminals."

Nevertheless, he granted me accelerated rehabilitative disposition (ARD) - a kind of probation for first time offenders.

I successfully completed the ARD program, haven't been arrested since and the court papers are now buried in a box deep in the basement of an upstate courthouse. But the incident - legally, it can no longer be called an arrest - continues to haunt me thanks to two computers.

The FBI now has my fingerprints on file, so they can track me in case I commit another crime and don't wear gloves.

And even though it happened nearly 14 years ago -  twice as long as it would legally take to purge court records of my arrest - the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) computer likely still has me listed as an offender.

NCIC is the nation's most extensive computerized criminal justice information system, containing criminal history information, files on wanted persons, and information on stolen vehicles and missing persons. It is available for use by any cop in a police cruiser or in radio contact with a police dispatcher. Most 911 centers also have access to it.

Unfortunately, it's also easily accessible by politicians seeking to dig up dirt on anyone they want, even though there's supposed to be laws against such abuse.

That's just what happened in 1997, when I started a new job as a political reporter in a neighboring county that was controlled by a party political machine.

Two weeks into that confrontational job, I got a call from a court clerk I was friendly with in my old county saying that one of the politicos I was now covering had called and wanted to know the results of my arrest.

I didn't say anything publicly at the time - there was no reason to, but I let that politician privately know he had to have violated federal law by misusing the NCIC computer.

He's not the only one.

Among 56 examples of abuse of NCIC, found by the federal General Accounting Office in 1993, was a computer operator in Pennsylvania who used the system to conduct background searches for her drug-dealer boyfriend. He wanted to learn if new clients were undercover agents.

Back then, the GAO recommended that Congress enact legislation with "strong criminal sanctions" barring the misuse of the criminal record files and that the FBI encourage state users to enhance security.

But just two years ago, an attorney general's office worker and a former FBI agent in Las Vegas were caught selling information from the NCIC database to organized crime syndicates and other criminals for more than $100,000.

Even some cops have abused it and similar computer systems to check up on wives and potential girlfriends, according to the Copwatch.org web site.

Yet, instead of following the GAO's advice, the Justice Department lifted a requirement in March that the FBI ensure the accuracy and timeliness of information about criminals and crime victims before adding it to NCIC.


Three years ago, the shoe was on the other foot.

Newtown Township supervisor Raymond "Skip" Goodnoe enraged his political enemies on the board, so they launched a legal probe into his alleged affair with a municipal employee.

The probe cost the township $50,000 and resulted in his fellow supervisors extracting his e-mails to the woman from the township's computer system and putting them in a 54-page public report.

I was the online editor for the Bucks County Courier Times at that time, so the job of posting the full report on the Internet fell to me.

The lurid electronic love letters drew plenty of Web page views, publicly embarrassing Goodnoe, but yielded no proof of any legal wrongdoing.

The report and all but the Courier's final story about the probe have since lapsed off of the phillyBurbs.com Web server.

Yet, I certainly understand why Goodnoe declined comment when I called him recently to ask his hindsight thoughts about the incident. "I don't want to go back there," said Goodnoe, who's still on the board.

Asked if there's any lesson the public could learn from the whole mess, he replied, "People need to be on notice.  …Don't type it if you don't want it read by anybody, or everybody."


Nearly 20 years after 1984, the year of George Orwell's fictional "Big Brother," the author's nightmare is becoming commonplace and even accepted.

For example:

  • The FBI has long had the power to intercept anyone's e-mail on the Internet through a system called Carnivore.

  • Computer-controlled cameras armed with facial recognition software are being posted in cities to keep an eye out for terrorists and criminals. They also monitor the lives of regular citizens who have no idea they're being watched.

  • Every product you purchase with your debit or credit card is recorded. And pretty soon products will be emitting their own radio signals, a replacement for the venerable bar code.

  • Anyone convicted of a crime in New Jersey over the last four months was required to give police a sample of their DNA, until a federal court ruled on Oct. 2 that the practice was unconstitutional.

  • The American Civil Liberties Union sued the FBI and other government agencies in April on behalf of two peace activists detained at an airport because their names popped up on a secret "no-fly" list.

  • Under the Patriot Act, the FBI now has the right to find out which books you read.
  • The Bush administration wants to give federal investigators subpoena power without approval from a judge or grand jury.

Information about you flows silently into a myriad of separately maintained computer systems every day.  Ret. Admiral John Poindexter wanted to connect them all.

Poindexter's Terrorism Information Awareness program was developing software in the Pentagon that could examine the computerized travel, credit card, medical and other records of Americans and others around the world to search for telltale activities that might reveal preparations for a terrorist attack, according to the Associated Press.

That is, until Congress cut funding for the program three weeks ago, citing invasion of privacy concerns.

"Americans on American soil are not going to be targets of TIA surveillance that would have violated their privacy and civil liberties," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who battled the program for months, told the AP.

Guess he needs to call Gov. Ed Rendell and let him know.

Pennsylvania and six other states - Florida, Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Utah - are going ahead with plans to create a database that tracks personal details of all of their citizens, not just those accused of a crime.

And believe it or not, they've dubbed it the Matrix - short for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange.

Privacy rights advocates have questioned the database, saying it will contain credit histories, marriages and divorces, even fingerprints and Social Security numbers.

Even a senior official overseeing the project admits it can be intrusive. "It's scary. It could be abused. I mean, I can call up everything about you, your pictures and pictures of your neighbors," Phil Ramer, special agent in charge of statewide intelligence, told the Washington Post.

California, Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oregon, Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina have all pulled out of the project, citing its cost and privacy concerns.

Matrix houses restricted police and government files on colossal databases that sit in the offices of Seisint Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla., company founded by millionaire Hank Asher whom police say flew planeloads of drugs into the country in the early 1980s, according to the Associated Press.

Even if Asher isn't a drug smuggler, why should we worry? It's not as if anybody in Pennsylvania has ever abused private information before.

To e-mail Gov. Rendell and tell him to take the blue pill by pulling us out of the Matrix, click here.

Dave Ralis' Pave The Grass column appears on Mondays. You can send him an e-mail at  or call him at 215-269-5051. To read his previous columns, click here.

Oct. 27, 2003