Congress Must Set Restrictions On Information Gathering

September 24, 2008 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – As a key House subcommittee met for a hearing entitled “A Report Card on Homeland Security Information Sharing,” the American Civil Liberties Union today urged subcommittee members to ask the witnesses tough questions to ensure information sharing benefits our security without endangering the rights of innocent Americans. The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment heard testimony from national and local security experts about efforts to increase information sharing among law enforcement, including the use of fusion centers.

The ACLU is concerned that the push to expand domestic police intelligence authorities without strict and clear guidelines will result in abuse. Indeed, the ACLU recently published an updated report on intelligence fusion centers which documents several instances in which state and local police officials improperly collected and accessed intelligence information in ways that risk rather than protect our security, including improper police spying on peace advocates in Maryland and law enforcement involvement in intelligence data thefts in California.

“Just as fusion centers expanded law enforcement’s opportunities to collect, analyze and share personal information, Congress has the obligation to make certain that information is properly protected,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Gathering innocuous information about Americans’ ordinary activities is merely throwing more hay onto an already massive stack. That won’t make us safer. There needs to be strict oversight and there needs to be structured, uniform and comprehensive guidelines that protect our sensitive information.”

Adding to growing concerns over information gathering is a troubling new Bush Administration proposal to change federal regulations governing criminal intelligence databases. The proposed changes would ease restrictions regarding when state and local law enforcement can collect personal information, and all but remove limitations on when and with whom they can share this intelligence. One proposed amendment would double the amount of time police agencies can keep information without reviewing it for accuracy. Those changes, combined with the increased usage of the vaguely defined suspicious activity reports (which allow law enforcement to monitor and record banal activity such as “using binoculars”), could mean that fusion center employees all over the country will have both highly sensitive and highly ambiguous information at their fingertips.

“The movement to give law enforcement limitless information sharing power, while simultaneously relaxing restrictions on information gathering, is a recipe for disaster,” said Michael German, ACLU National Security Policy Counsel. “Information sharing cannot work if those doing the gathering and sharing are not forced to abide by bright line restrictions that forbid the gathering and sharing of sensitive information about people not suspected of being involved in illegal activity. Congress has the opportunity now to begin setting boundaries on increasingly unobstructed information gathering and sharing practices. Failing to set proper safeguards now could place every American’s privacy in jeopardy. Congress has an obligation to prevent information sharing from becoming a privacy-destroying monster.”

To read the ACLU’s comments on the rule change to 28 CFR Part 23, go to: www.aclu.org/safefree/36595leg20080829.html

To read the ACLU’s updated report on fusion centers, go to: www.aclu.org/fusion

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