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.

Digital Fourth volunteer and FOIA maven Evan Anderson filed a public records request more than a year ago, asking about BRIC’s public and private sector partners; reported privacy violations; the number of tips they receive, and more.

Much of the response to our inquiries takes issue with our use of the term “Shared Space” to describe the BRIC’s internal databases, since the BRIC recently updated to the eGuardian system managed by the FBI. According to Lt. McCarthy, who provided the response to our request, the difference between the older system and the eGuardian system is that data submitted to the latter are shared nationally. It appears that prior to the upgrade, information within the BRIC’s databases was distributed to other agencies only if officers elected to do so; now, nationwide sharing is the default. This is a little like them changing their name to BRAC and then refusing to answer any questions referring to BRIC, but whatever.

While they deflected a large number of the various questions sent their way, the few items they actually did provide answers to still reveal some interesting facts.

For the year 2014, the BRIC received and reviewed 37 reports from the Boston Police; five reports from police departments at local colleges and universities; six reports from the Urban Area Security Initiative, which covers Brookline, Cambridge, Everett, Quincy and Somerville; and one report each from the Boston Housing Authority, FBI, Department of Correction, and the U.S. Coast Guard. It appears that these 37 reports are those that were determined to have a legitimate “nexus to terrorism” by the BRIC. The means by which suspicious activity was reported to the BRIC during the year 2014 are the following: 20 via email; 36 via incident reports; and one via “intel info.” There were no reports submitted through the Internet or by phone.

Of course, the BRIC claims that there have been no instances in which BRIC personnel have breached their privacy policy. We’ll be following up on that patently false claim next week.

So the total number of reports submitted to the BRIC in 2014 appears to be around 57, although there may be other ways by which suspicious activity is reported to the fusion center. That only 37 survived vetting by the BRIC means at least 20 of these reports were found to be illegitimate and thrown away. This is significant given that the BRIC’s threshold for acceptance of reports is exceptionally low.

The reference to “intel info” in the response to our request is especially interesting. During a January lecture in Boston, NSA whistleblower and journalist James Bamford mentioned to the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Kade Crockford that NSA intelligence, “albeit sanitized,” can make its way to your neighborhood via fusion centers.

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Could it be that the one report submitted by the FBI was the “intel info” referenced in the response to our request? It is hard to say, but it certainly seems possible, given that we know the DEA shares information gathered from wiretaps with various three-letter agencies and instructs them to cover up the actual source of the intelligence using what is known as “parallel construction.”

Oh, and who knows what the Boston Housing Authority thinks they’re doing talking to homeland security? In official eyes, being poor really is veering perilously close to being a terrorist, isn’t it?

Read the response to our public records request here.

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Evan Anderson and Alex Marthews contributed to this report.

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