Tag Archives: Fusion Centers

Penny-Ante State-Based Spies Want To Force Big Kids To Let Them Play With All The Data


The U. S. House just passed two bills under suspension, HR. 3503 and HR. 3598, sponsored by Rep. McCaul (R-TX-10) and Rep. Peter King (R-NY-2). For some reason, McCaul and King are fans of the inept and wasteful “fusion centers”, a network of 78 state-based centers funded partly through DHS.

The idea back in 2006 was that fusion centers would provide “joined-up intelligence”, coordinating federal and state information that would then thwart terrorist attacks in advance.

It didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, there’s good reason why fusion centers are not now the focus of intelligence sharing efforts: They turned out to be a waste of time and resources better spent elsewhere.

A bipartisan 2012 US Senate report blasted the fusion centers for failing to thwart any attacks, for wasting public funds on things like widescreen TVs (for “open source intelligence collection”), and for articulating absurd rationales for surveilling peaceful domestic activists. One fusion center labeled supporters of Ron Paul and the Campaign for Liberty as potential domestic terrorists; in Boston and around the country, veterans’ groups, the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter have come under sustained scrutiny. Fusion centers don’t thwart terrorism; they offer states a bureaucratic mechanism to funnel DHS grants to, say, northeastern Ohio (which has its own fusion center), distributing them away from areas more likely to be targeted by terrorists. They collect and sit on mounds of unverified gossip about “suspicious” people, gossip that often appears motivated by racial or religious bias. These threats are nonsensical; there is no reason to lend them credence.

These bills should be seen clearly for what they are. They’re not efforts to actually thwart terrorist attacks better; they’re salvos in a turf war between intelligence agencies. Fusion centers are often left out of data sharing by other surveillance agencies, such as the FBI, TSA, CBP and other DHS agencies. Instead of allowing discretionary sharing with individual fusion centers, H. 3598 requires support for the National Fusion Center Network specifically, and aims to “ensur[e] that fusion centers in the Network are the primary focal points for the sharing of homeland security information, terrorism information, and weapons of mass destruction information with state and local entities.” HR. 3503 seeks to integrate fusion centers more closely with border security, in the form of CBP, TSA and the Coast Guard, forcing those agencies to analyze whether it would be beneficial to station CBP, TSA and CG personnel at fusion centers, in lieu of simply sharing data electronically. The bill gives the Under-Secretary of Intelligence and Analysis at DHS an ultimatum to agree within one year with all 78 fusion centers how DHS and the fusion centers will share and disclose data. Of course, the bills take no steps to make fusion centers effective in the future, so there’s no way to test whether the bills will actually do good if they pass. All they offer Congress is reports on whether fusion centers have particular policies, not whether the policies work; whether they are sharing information, not whether the sharing actually results in less terrorism or less crime.

We support the sharing of important, verified leads, based on probable cause of actual criminal plots. But these bills make us less, not more, safe, by encouraging the kind of information sharing that will overwhelm agencies like FBI and other parts of DHS with useless false positives. They will waste the time of FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force personnel, forcing them to spend time dealing with an extra agency when time is of the essence. There is no language that would involve actual evaluation of whether the information they hold is accurate, useful or constitutionally appropriate to hold. As constitutional activists, we’re no fans of the FBI’s efforts to convert themselves into a federal counterterrorism and domestic surveillance agency, and there’s plenty of overlap already among federal agencies fighting for a piece of the seemingly unending stream of counterterrorism tax dollars; but extending sharing further by forcing everything to go via the fusion centers seems even more counterproductive.

Call your Senator, and urge them to vote against these bills!

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


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


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”


“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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Wikileaks Hacking Team Emails Implicate NJ Fusion Center


This week, Wikileaks released a searchable database of over a million internal emails from an Italian outfit called HackingTeam, which sells surveillance and hacking tools to dubious dictatorships around the world. Their software offerings include simple keyloggers all the way up to dragnet internet surveillance software.

I was willing to lay money that our friendly neighborhood fusion centers, the state-and-DHS-funded arms of the surveillance state, would be mixed up with HackingTeam somewhere. Looks like I win that bet.

Email #2640 shows the setup of a presentation from HackingTeam to the New Jersey fusion center’s most senior people, which apparently went ahead on November 1, 2013. The meeting was a success; by January, email #255362 shows that the fusion center was “interested in deploying” HackingTeam’s product. The subject line “DaVinci” shows what software is involved; “DaVinci” is the brand name for HackingTeam’s “remote control system” that promises to “break encryption and allow law enforcement agencies to monitor encrypted files and emails, Skype and other Voice over IP or chat communication […] It allows identification of the target’s location and relationships. It can also remotely activate microphones and cameras on a computer and works worldwide.” DaVinci has infamously been used by Middle Eastern governments to spy on Arab Spring activists.

It appears that the senior NJROIC figures were “excited about its capabilities.” I’ll bet they were.

The emails don’t go on to show whether NJROIC actually implemented DaVinci. Whether or not they did, it’s reasonable to deduce that NJROIC has a strong interest in being able to subvert NJ residents’ communications privacy. Reached for comment, an NJROIC spokesman was at pains to state that everything they do is under the guidance of the Attorney-General, conforms to applicable laws, and involves obtaining court orders and warrants as appropriate, but would not be drawn on the hypothetical question of whether encryption-subversion software would be treated as requiring a warrant.

Subverting encryption is, to an extent, a natural part of the arms race between users on one side, and the government and criminal hackers on the other. But if it’s done without the procedural safeguards embodied in the Fourth Amendment – safeguards that third-party firms like HackingTeam appear willing gleefully to ignore in pursuit of juicy contracts – it opens all of our communications to the government’s unsleeping eye, whether we try to encrypt them or not. The government should steer well away from this kind of “offensive cybersecurity”, and focus on keeping its elderly, hole-filled networks secure instead of exploring new ways to weaken yours and mine.

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


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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The House Wants to Defund DHS. Let’s Restructure It Instead.


Media outlets and blogs are taking to the fainting couches because Very Evil House Republicans who Hate America are threatening to defund the much-mocked Department of Homeland Security.

Sadly, they’re not failing to fund it because, say, it’s a gargantuan bureaucratic waste of time that funnels billions of taxpayer dollars to security grifting companies, or because it hands out military equipment to police departments with all the brio and experience of a private just out of basic training, or because DHS funding suppresses legitimate dissent by communities of color across the United States.

No, what’s really got House Republicans in a lather about DHS is realizing that something “must-pass” like a DHS funding bill would be a great vehicle for a poison-pill amendment overturning the President’s executive actions on immigration. So they sent that bill up to the Senate, and Senate Republicans, needing five Democratic votes to push through a DHS funding bill, somehow can’t find any Democrats willing to commit electoral hara-kiri with their own base in order to please the Republicans’ base. Go figure!

As a result, in two weeks’ time the DHS will run out of money, and apologists for the security state are beginning to panic – but they’re having trouble getting their stories straight. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) warns us all, “We can’t go too far here because look what happened in Paris.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) fulminates, “We can’t shut down the DHS. Not with the threats the homeland is subjected to as a result of the rise of ISIS.” [Note: There is no threat to “the homeland” from ISIS.] For God’s sake, the TSA might run out of money! What an awful shame that would be!

The DHS is a failure. It was a bad idea to begin with, coming out of the incorrect notion that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented by “joined-up intelligence.” It never made sense to yoke the Coast Guard, FEMA, and the customs/border/transportation security/immigration agencies awkwardly together. DHS has always been poorly managed. It just layers an extra frosting of highly remunerated officials on top of agencies that would do just as fine where they were before. So let’s take a closer look at what a sensible structure would look like.

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