Sam Milgrom,
Washington Legislative Office
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April 30, 2009

You mean to tell me that it is legal for corporations from the private sector to team up with local law enforcement officials in efforts to spy on innocent members of our society? You also mean to tell me that the synthesis of law enforcement authority and the drive of for-profit companies operate under little to no guidelines or restrictions and it is unclear to whom they are responsible to?

Welcome to the world of fusion centers, where according to an article by Eric Schmitt of The New York Times, Surveillance Effort Draws Civil Liberties Concern:

A growing number of big-city police departments and other law enforcement agencies across the country are embracing a new system to report suspicious activities that officials say could uncover terrorism plots…

…Officers are filling out terror tips sheets if they run across activities in their routines that seem out of place, like someone buying police or firefighter uniforms, taking pictures of a power plant or espousing extremist views.

Really, taking pictures of power plants? Espousing extremist views? These actions are worthy of being written up in a daily intelligence briefing on terrorism? I never knew taking pictures of power plants was illegal or could be suspicious enough to be considered a potential terrorist threat. And last time I checked the First Amendment was still intact and protected the freedom to voice your own views.

The ACLU has long-warned about the dangers of fusion centers and even wrote a report in 2007 (which we updated last year).

The absence of standards governing data collection — how data is collected, what data is collected, who data is collected from, who the fusion centers share information with, what they do with that information in the meantime, and ultimately who is responsible for overseeing the data collection — is incredibly problematic.

Of course law enforcement agencies should share lawfully gathered criminal intelligence, and it is a good idea for those agencies to be on the same page moving forward in order to continue to keep our country safe. But to operate these surveillance centers without guidelines and standards is negligent at best, if not an assault on innocent citizens’ rights to privacy, free speech and freedom of assembly.

Just like anything else, throwing money at a problem and asking as few questions as possible simply will not work. And worse, not providing any guidelines or not holding programs accountable for their actions has led to illegal invasion of privacy and abuse of power, time after time.

Even more problematic is the chilling effect generated as a result of more frequent investigations and apprehensions of innocent individuals and groups falsely accused of engaging in suspicious and potentially terrorist activity.

That scenario is more unpatriotic and poses as large a threat to the underpinnings of our society than any of the activities the fusion centers have reported and investigated.

In order for our basic liberties to be restored, the confusion surrounding what is being collected and with whom that information is shared and what is done with it needs to be cleared up. Straightforward guidelines and standards allow for ethical and effective police work and reduce the chance that civil liberties will be violated. Let us hope we will see the establishment of such guidelines and standards soon.

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