Your Police Dept May Spy On You “For Situational Awareness”

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“Fusion centers” are intelligence-aggregation operations, created after the 9/11 Commission found that, had agencies (namely the FBI and CIA) engaged in more free and open sharing of information, the terrorist attacks could have been prevented. (The laws in 2001 permitted sharing that would have prevented the attacks; but the agencies were overly cautious about sharing data out of turf concerns.)

There are now at least 78 fusion centers dispersed throughout the United States. They claim to focus mostly on collecting intelligence of activity that may have a “nexus” to terrorism, but also criminal activity more broadly. But they operate in almost total darkness, with virtually no transparency. The little we do know suggests that fusion centers neither prevent terrorist acts nor respect First Amendment rights to free speech and free association.

The Intercept reported last week on the fusion centers’ targeting of Black Lives Matter protests, but there are also many other examples, going back to the fusion centers’ founding. The ACLU of Massachusetts found that the Boston Regional Intelligence Center — one of two fusion centers in the Bay State — was spying on antiwar groups; the Austin Regional Intelligence Center was caught monitoring peaceful animal rights activists protesting a circus (I reported on this for MuckRock); and a fusion center in Nebraska — the Nebraska Information Analysis Center — has a special network focusing on activists opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. They justify such activities by claiming that they are monitoring “for situational awareness”, and that this doesn’t constitute surveillance. In fact, that’s exactly what surveillance is; “For Your Situational Awareness” is military jargon for obtaining the intelligence needed to make appropriate battlefield decisions.

Given the lack of sunlight surrounding the everyday activities of the dozens of fusion centers throughout the country, we decided we want to find out more. Naturally, we filed a public records request. We wanted to find out where our other local fusion center — the Commonwealth Fusion Center run by the Massachusetts State Police — gets their intelligence; who has authorized access to their databases; whether any errors in their databases have been discovered; and what kind of information the CFC has on myself and Alex Marthews, the national chair of Restore the Fourth.

Here is what we found:

  • The CFC has received one request for correction of information in their databases. The CFC claims that this request was not due to the unauthorized gathering, collection, use, retention, destruction, sharing, classification or disclosure of information, and that no complaints have been made to the Privacy Officer of the CFC. No employee, agency, or individual with authorized access have been disciplined for the misuse of information in their databases. According to the response, “no action was necessary,” because the CFC “was not in possession of any responsive records to be corrected.” Unfortunately, the request for correction itself is exempt from disclosure because it contains information regarding individual CORI records and personal information.

  • Agencies providing information technology s contractors and Microsoft: “ACISS, eGuardian, and previously SharePoint contractors and Microsoft.” “SharePoint contractors and Microsoft” refers to the CFC’s previous, Bing-enabled surveillance search/databasing software from the Microsoft Fusion Framework (yes, that is a thing). ACISS is a more bells-and-whistles solution from a boutique security state contractor. eGuardian, used by all fusion centers and most Joint Terrorism Task Forces, coordinates Suspicious Activity Reports across states, so that a report of your allegedly suspicious activity in Maine will follow you even if you move to a cabin in the Ozarks.

  • The CFC claimed to be unable to determine what information they hold is derived from cell phone towers, cell site simulators, or surveillance cameras. Similarly, they claim to be unable to determine what information was acquired without proper authority or via prohibited means. What this suggests is that their systems are not set up to be meaningfully auditable for Constitutional compliance.

  • The CFC also claimed to have no information on myself (Evan Anderson), or on Alex Marthews.

  • When asked how many sources have provided information that is accessible to the CFC, they produced a list that includes many agencies you would expect, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and many, though not all, local police departments throughout the state. See the list here.

  • There are currently 1,177 active users, and 194 active agencies, with authorized access to the CFC’s intelligence system. Assuming that each user belongs to one of the 194 agencies, that is an average of about six users per agency. We’re interested in the police departments that do – hey, Bentley University PD! – but in a sense, it’s more interesting that most police departments don’t see it as worth their time to have access to this system.

Read the original request, the correspondence with the CFC, and the responsive documents here.

Article by Evan Anderson.

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