MA Fusion Center Reform Stalls Out

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Digital Fourth’s second major campaign is to close the fusion centers, which are like mini-NSAs that gather data on residents’ “suspicious activities” in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Now, the major fusion center reform bill in the Massachusetts legislature has died in committee. In this post, we’re exploring why the Free Speech Act was important, and the challenges that lie ahead for fusion center reform in the Commonwealth.

Fusion centers aim to “encourage effective, efficient, ethical, lawful, and professional intelligence and information sharing; and prevent and reduce the harmful effects of crime and terrorism.” In practice, thanks to devastating reporting by the ACLU and by the US Senate, we know that their “Suspicious Activity Reports” (SARs) system has never actually thwarted a terrorist attack; that they routinely spy on peaceful dissidents and collect unverified, sometimes racially motivated gossip; and that the ocean of data on which they rely is so vast that they cannot prioritize and synthesize it in a timely way. Our own report on Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Fusion Center uses their own documents to demonstrate major threats to Constitutional protections from the fusion centers’ work.

To his everlasting credit, Rep. (now Sen.) Jason Lewis introduced the Free Speech Act (prior analysis here) to deal with some of these issues. Sadly, the Judiciary Committee has not moved forward with that bill this session, though they advanced another important but less controversial electronic privacy bill.

This points up two problems, even in Massachusetts, of fusion center reform. One, it’s hard to get people up to speed on fusion centers. They’re a very low-profile part of the surveillance state. People get more easily fired up about the NSA, because it has been all over the news for a year, but it’s hard to grasp the fact that every state government is complicit in mass surveillance and has the power to defund their own mass surveillance efforts. The evidence is already out there for lawmakers not only to advance the Free Speech Act, but to wonder whether it goes far enough; but both fusion centers in Massachusetts have so far failed to respond to our FOIA requests seeking transparency into their activities.

Sen. Lewis comments:

[the Free Speech Act] “is an important step in reining in the data collection of fusion centers, and would protect individuals from the collection of data relative to those activities covered by the First Amendment. It is critical that we strike the right balance between security and privacy protections, and I believe that this legislation accomplishes just that. I am eager to continue to move forward with this legislation, either this year, or upon filing it again next session.”

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