We Just Denied Boston’s Spy Center $1.45m In Extra Funding

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It’s common to assume nothing can be done to roll back mass surveillance. Truth is, every technology operates within a set of political assumptions about what can and cannot be done with it. Little by little, we can change those assumptions.

Three weeks ago, we caught the Boston Regional Intelligence Center trying to sneak $2.25m for “technology upgrades and integration” into the state budget. Our members started calling Ways and Means legislators, arguing that this would be throwing good money after bad. BRIC uses technology to repress peaceful journalists and protesters; why should they get a cent?

A little surprised at this pushback, legislators reduced the $2.25m to $792,669.

Here’s the exact language from H. 3829, the budget that just passed:

“8000-1001 For the Boston Regional Intelligence Center to upgrade, expand, and integrate technology and protocols related to anti-terrorism, anti-crime, anti-gang, and emergency response; provided that intelligence developed shall be shared with the BRIC communities and other State municipal and federal agencies as necessary; provided further, that BRIC shall provide technology required to access the intelligence with its municipal partners, the State police, the MBTA, the Mass Port Authority, and appropriate federal agencies to assure maximum interagency collaboration for public safety and homeland security…………………………………..…………………………..$792,669”

With this reduction, we just saved MA taxpayers $1.45m. And BRIC is, from now on, on notice that their funding requests will not be smooth sailing.

If you like that we did this, consider donating to Digital Fourth / Restore The Fourth Boston, joining our listserv, coming to our Wednesday 12pm meetings at Voltage Coffee & Art, or attending our monthly evening group (next meeting Sunday, November 1, at Summer Shack).

Don’t Worry: Area Counter-Terrorism Center Laser-Focused on Bicycling Cellphone Thief

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If you like your mass surveillance steak sauced in a Keystone Kops level of organizational dysfunction, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC, could be your dream meal.

This story comes via a former Emmanuel College student, who received a BRIC “intelligence bulletin” to all students regarding a man stealing cell phones on his bicycle in the Fenway area (see below). Is it upsetting to have your cellphone stolen by an environmentally conscious thief? Yes. Is it at a level of criminality that warrants shoveling tens of millions of our dollars towards a gee-whiz high-tech surveillance center to gather information on all Massachusetts residents? Uh, probably not. Tell me again when we signed up for that?

Far from focusing on intelligence related to terrorism, in practice, the BRIC concentrates almost exclusively on criminal activity unrelated to any conceivable notion of what “terrorism” actually is. The truth is that the risk we face from terrorism is extremely low, but the continued existence of the BRIC, of 77 other “fusion centers” around the country, of the Department of Homeland Security itself, and of a whole ecosystem of security grifting companies, depends on taxpayers not working that out. So, to keep themselves going, BRIC has to use surveillance to disrupt a broad array of minimally criminal or even entirely non-criminal activity, and redefine that activity as much as possible as being terrorism. We have to be told, repeatedly, that the wolf is at the door, that things are getting worse, and that mass surveillance will actually help make things better. Here at Digital Fourth, we call this the “Bureaucratic Counterterrorism Imperative.”

With that in mind, here are the results of our latest Public Records Act request to the BRIC, which documents for the first time that BRIC does get data from intelligence agency sources.

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MA Senate Maj. Leader Strongly Opposes Fusion Centers. So Do We.

In its October 7 hearing on “Protected Classes. Privacy, and Data Collection Legislation”, the Massachusetts legislature heard impassioned testimony on the fusion centers from Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harriette Chandler. She argued that they represent an illegitimate intrusion of federal surveillance into our everyday lives.

The fusion centers gather a vast array of data on law-abiding Massachusetts residents whom they believe to have been behaving “suspiciously” in some lawful way. This violates the Fourth Amendment, and is also bad policy. Right now, as far as we have been able to determine, no external body ever evaluates the accuracy or appropriateness of the data the fusion centers hold. DHS evaluates them every five years to certify their adherence to DHS procedures for fusion centers; the fusion centers self-certify annually that they are ramping up according to plan, and that they respect privacy and civil liberties. (They give themselves full marks, naturally). That’s it.

We too dislike the fusion centers, and also see them as sinisterly ensnaring Massachusetts residents in a web of surveillance. To us, the question is not so much whether we as a state should regulate the fusion centers, but whether we should fire all their employees, blow up their buildings, and then salt the earth beneath them as a mark of horror for future generations. Still, still, we love that there is a fusion center reform bill, and we warmly support it.

Our five-year vision for the Massachusetts fusion centers differs sharply from theirs.

The bill’s provisions make good, if incremental, sense. They require the fusion centers to audit themselves annually to determine whether they have investigations open that shouldn’t be, and make the report of that a public record; they empower an inspector-general to conduct outside audits; and they specify some metrics whereby the fusion centers can determine how well they are respecting people’s privacy. These are important first steps toward establishing whether anything that the fusion centers do, actually does the rest of us any good; and will prepare the ground better for us to have discussions in future years about closing them entirely.

Boston Fusion Center Trying to Sneak Millions of $ More Into House Budget

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Those sneaky folks over at the Boston Regional Intelligence Center decided that we weren’t shoveling enough tax dollars towards their hard work of spying on protesters, harassing Twitter bloviators, and serving as a praetorian guard for major corporate interests. To remedy this injustice, they got the House to approve over two million dollars in extra funding for “technology and protocol upgrades” as part of H. 3773.

8000-1001 For the Boston Regional Intelligence Center to upgrade, expand, and integrate technology and protocols related to anti-terrorism, anti-crime, anti-gang, and emergency response; provided that intelligence developed shall be shared with the BRIC communities and other State municipal and federal agencies as necessary; provided further, that BRIC shall provide technology required to access the intelligence with its municipal partners, the State police, the MBTA, the Mass Port Authority, and appropriate federal agencies to assure maximum interagency collaboration for public safety and homeland security………………………………………………………………………..$2,250,000

It should be clear to everyone that there should not be an endless spigot of tax dollars going to fund counter-terrorism when we already vastly overspend on counter-terrorism, or to fund vaguely-worded “anti-crime and anti-gang” initiatives when crime is approaching historic lows. The Senate hasn’t passed its supplemental budget yet, so we’re asking Senators not to include this language.

If you, like us, feel uneasy about no-strings-attached funding going to your local spy center, please consider giving your state Senator a call; there’s a tool here for finding out who they are.

Bodycams Delay Will Cost About Four Lives In Boston Per Year

Another kid’s DNA for our database!

Commissioner Evans of the Boston PD came before the Boston City Council last week to counter activists’ arguments that adopting an ordinance mandating police body-worn cameras would decrease police uses of force and complaints. His favored alternative solutions were (1) more ice-cream socials, because Boston is a “model” city for community policing; (2) delay, because more research is needed on whether they would work in Boston; and (3) in a sit-down interview with the Boston Herald, calling for laws requiring citizens filming police to keep their distance and for them to help police subdue suspects.

We’ll get to the ice-cream socials in a minute, shall we?

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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:

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Boston’s Fusion Center Gives Itself an A+ on “Privacy and Civil Liberties”

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Ten months ago, Digital Fourth submitted a public records request to Boston’s fusion center, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center. It took two appeals to the Secretary of State to get it, but we finally got a response.

The states operate a network of 78 fusion centers across the nation, which coordinate intelligence-related information between federal agencies and state and local law enforcement, in the name of thwarting terrorist attacks. They have never, to anyone’s knowledge, actually thwarted one, and they have become bywords in Washington for waste and ineffectiveness. Previously, we reported on constitutional violations and the results of a FOIA request at Massachusetts’ “Commonwealth Fusion Center”, operated by the State Police; now it’s the turn of Massachusetts’ other fusion center, headquartered at the Boston PD.

The most interesting document we received is the “2013 Fusion Center Assessment Individual Report: Boston Regional Intelligence Center”. This report was heavily redacted, but luckily the State of Colorado has posted on its website an unredacted 2014 report from Colorado’s fusion center that is absolutely identical in format to the Boston report we received, rendering all of the redactions in the Boston report moot. So if you’d like to understand what the BRIC didn’t want us to see, read on.

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