Privacy and Intelligence Experts Join Call for Oversight of Massachusetts Domestic Surveillance Operations

October 21, 2009 12:00 am

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As Massachusetts legislature considers bill to prevent intelligence abuses, ACLU briefing highlights need to protect political, religious, and other activity

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BOSTON — Experts including a former FBI agent, the whistleblower who disclosed military surveillance of civilian political activity in the 1970s, and a leading national privacy authority today urged swift action on Senate Bill 931, a measure before the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security of the Massachusetts legislature. The bill, filed by State Senator Harriette L. Chandler and known as “An Act Regarding the Commonwealth Fusion Center and Other Intelligence Data Centers,” aims to prevent surveillance abuses and ensure that intelligence operations in the state do not violate privacy and First Amendment rights.

In 2004, then-Governor Romney established the Commonwealth Fusion Center, putting Massachusetts on the front line of a national effort to centralize and expand the government’s ability to collect and retain personal information on ordinary people, for the professed purpose of preventing terrorism. Today, however, the Fusion Center operates with virtually no independent oversight, with inadequate privacy protections, and without quality controls. Public records requests by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts over the last four years have shown that the Fusion Center collects and compiles information from an array of public and private electronic sources and shares that data throughout the country via a nationally-networked system of databases.

“Too often since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, we have been told that we need to balance our liberty interests against our security interests, but my experience during a 16-year career in federal law enforcement taught me this is a false construction,” said Mike German, ACLU Policy Counsel on National Security, Immigration and Privacy, and a former FBI agent. “In fact, what I learned by infiltrating domestic terrorist groups as an FBI undercover agent is that the opposite is true: by failing to protect the liberty interests of innocent people we actually harm our security, and by failing to properly regulate and oversee the activities of law enforcement and intelligence agencies we allow them to become less competent and less effective.”

“At the moment, advocates of fusion centers are trying to diversify their operations before Americans realize that there aren’t that many terrorists to justify the enormous scale of the fusion center network, and before legislators discover that the centers are virtually useless in the war on terrorism,” said Christopher Pyle, Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, who in the 1970s disclosed the military’s surveillance of civilian political activity. “Traditional law enforcement investigations, radiating out from live leads, work better than indiscriminate collection and data mining.”

Senate Bill 931 will prohibit law enforcement from collecting information about individuals’ political and religious views, associations, or activities, unless it relates directly to a criminal investigation based on reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct. It will also establish an office of data protection and privacy oversight for all intelligence data centers, with a commissioner who is provided with full access and subpoena power in order to enable the office to investigate and analyze intelligence data center operations and make regular public reports. In addition, the bill will require basic privacy and quality controls on the data, and assure that an individual can access, review, and correct materials pertaining to him or her that the government has in its records, in order to ensure data accuracy and reliability.

“The Commonwealth has a pioneering history of protecting privacy, including the Massachusetts Fair Information Practices Act,” said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of ‘Privacy Journal’ and a leading national privacy expert. “Thus, the omission of any protections for persons who are the subject of fusion center records is glaring and dangerous. This data is unevaluated and unverified and the proposed bill would provide essential oversight.”

“It is critical for law enforcement to protect our rights as well as our security,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Providing law enforcement officers with uniform, clear standards that safeguard the rights of all Massachusetts residents, and maintaining strong oversight, will ensure that abuses are caught, corrected, and prevented. Senate Bill 931 provides reasonable checks that will help to keep Massachusetts residents both safe and free.”

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