GangNet, Orion and the Real Matrix

Revolutionary Worker #1211, August 24, 2003, posted at

In 1999 the Denver police took a bold leap into the future of police spying by purchasing a sophisticated computer database from a company called Orion Scientific Systems. The Denver police intelligence department then gathered case files, scraps of paper, rolodex cards, and notes they had collected over the last 54 years and began pecking away at the computer.

Entered into the database was information on all kinds of people--from those under police surveillance at demonstrations to those who filed for gun permits. The database required that each new entry be placed in a certain category--among the categories were "mental case," "civil disobedience," and "criminal extremist." Those inputting the data dutifully categorized each record. Among the names entered under "criminal extremist" were the pacifist American Friends Service Committee, the American Indian Movement, Chiapas Coalition, End the Politics of Cruelty, the Justice for Mena Committee, and nearly 100 Denver public schools students.

All this operated secretly--until the Orion database became public knowledge in the course of an ACLU lawsuit against the police department. As the ACLU suit uncovered, for decades the Denver police had carried out systematic and widespread spying on groups and indiviudals. And since 1999, the Denver police's spying and surveillance took on even more ominous dimensions with the use of the computer database program.

The ACLU lawsuit forced the Denver police to make promises about exercising some restraint in its spying activities. But what was revealed in Denver goes further than the fact that police spying had gone on for many years. The use of police database in Denver is a window into an emerging police state in this country. Denver is one city among a growing number throughout the U.S. that are embracing electronic database technology to target those who step out against the policies and moves of the government.

Orion Database

An electronic database is basically a filing system where information like names, addresses, and descriptions are stored on a computer system. This allows huge amounts of information to be stored and then easily retrieved, viewed, and manipulated. A "relational" database--which is what police in Denver and other places are deploying--takes things a step further. By setting up a connection between common elements of information, a relational database can discern patterns and make connections. It is that element in particular that is drawing police and spy agencies to deploy these databases.

Orion Scientific Systems is one of the private companies that develop and supply such databases. Orion brags that its work is "now a fixture throughout the U.S. Government intelligence community." Among its clients are the U.S. State Department, the Department of Defense, and the DOD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).


Another of Orion's "products" is CAL/GANG (also known as GangNet), produced for the California Department of Justice. The GangNet database is designed to handle information such as the names, nicknames, and tattoos of people who are alleged to be "gang members" or "affiliates" by the police. Police in other areas such as Reno and Wisconsin are also using GangNet.

CAL/GANG is a striking example of the methodology and reach of such technology. An article posted on the website by Raymond Dussault ("CAL/ GANG Bring Dividends") quotes Tom Gates, a former FBI agent who works for Orion: "Speed and ease of use were our main goals in development of CAL/GANG. We have a lot of former law enforcement people on our staff, and we worked with professionals outside of Orion to develop a system that was designed by police officers for police officers. This is probably the most user-friendly system ever made for law enforcement--it is like having a dog that walks itself."

According to Dussault, in its first year of operation (1998) GangNet was filled with the names of 245,000 "gang members" or "affiliates" and 116,000 "active gang members." It also cataloged 245,000 police interviews. Not only is this an astounding number of names--the fact that the numbers of "gang members" and police interviews neatly match suggests that anyone who the cops stop and talk to for alleged "gang activity" is automatically entered into the database as a "gang member" or "affiliate."

NYPD & Orion

Another Orion customer is the NYPD. According to the New York Times,the NYPD has spent close to $750,000 for Orion's Investigation III+--a database also used by 20 other law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S.

The NYPD is training 200 people in the intelligence division to use the system but has been secretive about how it is using the database. But strong signals emerged in the course of the antiwar activity in the winter of 2003. Reports started popping up all over after the massive February 15 protest that people arrested were systematically interrogated by cops. A witness reported to the RW that police "were grilling people with questions about what organizations they were with."

One protester told Newsday , "One by one, they took us to a smaller office. I was questioned alone by a detective. He asked me, `Did you come alone? Are you a student? Are you a member of a student organization? Do you come to these often?'"

Then it came out the NYPD cops had a "demonstration debriefing form" that they used to frame the questions. When there was major public uproar about all this, the police officials claimed ignorance. The Daily News reported (April 11, 2003), "[Police commissioner] Kelly said ... that he and the head of the NYPD's intelligence division, David Cohen, were unaware of the questionnaire until early this week."

The police officials said they would stop using the "debriefing form" to question arrested protesters. But they did not say they would stop entering information into their database.

The NYPD hasn't admitted that the database that it is using is the Investigation III+. But regardless of what exact system the NYPD is using, what comes through glaringly is that the police authorities are moving to further criminalize and crack down on political protest.

A "White Paper" posted on Orion's website describing Investigtions III+ explains the supposed "connections" that can be discerned using the software. The example Orion uses is a chart, complete with lines drawn to faces, to show alleged "connections." At the center of the chart is Osama Bin Laden.

This points to dangerous ways that police might use such a database: The police enter the names of individuals and organizations that they consider "troublemakers" into the database. The program--which has been created by a company with close ties to police and government intelligence circles--then spits out "connections" that tie certain individuals and organizations to alleged "terrorist" threats. This is then used as justification to conduct surveillance, investigations, prosecutions, and other attacks.

The Real Matrix

Another police database is known as the MATRIX (Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange)--the brainchild of Hank Asher. The Washington Post describes Asher as a data entrepeneur with a "history with drug smuggling" that includes "work as an informant" for the government.

In the wake of 9/11, Asher's company Seisnet offered the Florida state government a database that combines police records with personal information stored in commercial databases. According to the Washington Post , "It would let authorities, for instance, instantly find the name and address of every brown-haired owner of a red Ford pickup truck in a 20-mile radius of a suspicious event." Phil Ramer, special agent in charge of statewide intelligence told the Post,"I can call up everything about you, your pictures and pictures of your neighbors."

With funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, the MATRIX database is being expanded in a pilot program to law enforcement agencies in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvannia, and New York.

The potential uses of such a database against the people in various situations are enormous. Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology told the Post ,"It's going to make fishing expeditions so much more convenient. There's going to be a push to use it for many different kinds of purposes."


In October 2002, Orion Scientific Systems issued a joint press release with a company called Imagis Technologies. The occasion was to announce the deployment of the Multi-agency Uniform Imaging System (MUGS)--"the first countrywide, digital imaging sharing system for law enforcement agencies in the United States."

While Orion's expertise is in sophisticated databases, Imagis's focus is biometrics--using computers to match and identify people by physical features.

According to Orion and Imagis, the police can enter a photo into the MUGS system and search for previous arrest records and other centrally stored information. "Once identified offender records are easily updated with biographical data, officer's remarks, and compared to the national Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)."

Imagis's chairman, "Oliver" "Buck" Revell, is a former associate deputy director of the FBI over investigations, essentially the number two spot in the agency. According to the book The FBI , "Revell served on a dizzying array of interagency and international committees that deal with intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorism." Among Imagis's customers have been the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the International Airport in Toronto, one of the UK's national police agencies, and the government of Peru.


The electronic database technology that is increasingly being used by the police is advertised as a weapon against "crime." Those in authority say that the databases--like other measures to increase police and government powers--will make people "safer."

But those labeled as "criminal" by the authorities include broad numbers of people. For example, the Denver Post pointed out that "Denver made national news in 1993 when police revealed their gang list was so sweeping that it covered two-thirds of black males in the city."

And now, the power structure is increasingly labeling those who dissent and protest against government policies and actions as "criminal" and even "terrorist." Earlier this year, a state agency called the California Terrorism Intelligence Center sent out provocative warnings to the Oakland police about a planned antiwar protest. How can such outrageous actions by the authorities make people "safer" or be in the interest of the vast majority of the people?

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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