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.

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

report-suspicious-activity

“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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