A new institution is emerging in American life: Fusion Centers. These state, local and regional institutions were originally created to improve the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among different state, local and federal law enforcement agencies. Though they developed independently and remain quite different from one another, for many the scope of their mission has quickly expanded – with the support and encouragement of the federal government – to cover “all crimes and all hazards.” The types of information they seek for analysis has also broadened over time to include not just criminal intelligence, but public and private sector data, and participation in these centers has grown to include not just law enforcement, but other government entities, the military and even select members of the private sector.
These new fusion centers, over 40 of which have been established around the country, raise very serious privacy issues at a time when new technology, government powers and zeal in the “war on terrorism” are combining to threaten Americans’ privacy at an unprecedented level.
Moreover, there are serious questions about whether data fusion is an effective means of preventing terrorism in the first place, and whether funding the development of these centers is a wise investment of finite public safety resources. Yet federal, state and local governments are increasing their investment in fusion centers without properly assessing whether they serve a necessary purpose.
There’s nothing wrong with the government seeking to do a better job of properly sharing legitimately acquired information about law enforcement investigations – indeed, that is one of the things that 9/11 tragically showed is very much needed.
But in a democracy, the collection and sharing of intelligence information – especially information about American citizens and other residents – need to be carried out with the utmost care. That is because more and more, the amount of information available on each one of us is enough to assemble a very detailed portrait of our lives. And because security agencies are moving toward using such portraits to profile how “suspicious” we look.1
New institutions like fusion centers must be planned in a public, open manner, and their implications for privacy and other key values carefully thought out and debated. And like any powerful institution in a democracy, they must be constructed in a carefully bounded and limited manner with sufficient checks and balances to prevent abuse.
Unfortunately, the new fusion centers have not conformed to these vital requirements.
Since no two fusion centers are alike, it is difficult to make generalized statements about them. Clearly not all fusion centers are engaging in improper intelligence activities and not all fusion center operations raise civil liberties or privacy concerns. But some do, and the lack of a proper legal framework to regulate their activities is troublesome. This report is intended to serve as a primer that explains what fusion centers are, and how and why they were created. It details potential problems fusion centers present to the privacy and civil liberties of ordinary Americans, including:
Ambiguous Lines of Authority. The participation of agencies from multiple jurisdictions in fusion centers allows the authorities to manipulate differences in federal, state and local laws to maximize information collection while evading accountability and oversight through the practice of “policy shopping.”
Private Sector Participation. Fusion centers are incorporating private-sector corporations into the intelligence process, breaking down the arm’s length relationship that protects the privacy of innocent Americans who are employees or customers of these companies, and increasing the risk of a data breach.
Military Participation. Fusion centers are involving military personnel in law enforcement activities in troubling ways.
Data Fusion = Data Mining. Federal fusion center guidelines encourage whole sale data collection and manipulation processes that threaten privacy.
Excessive Secrecy. Fusion centers are hobbled by excessive secrecy, which limits public oversight, impairs their ability to acquire essential information and impedes their ability to fulfill their stated mission, bringing their ultimate value into doubt.
The lack of proper legal limits on the new fusion centers not only threatens to undermine fundamental American values, but also threatens to turn them into wasteful and misdirected bureaucracies that, like our federal security agencies before 9/11, won’t succeed in their ultimate mission of stopping terrorism and other crime.
The information in this report provides a starting point from which individuals can begin to ask informed questions about the nature and scope of intelligence programs being conducted in their communities. The report concludes with a list of recommendations for Congress and state legislatures.
1 Jay Stanley and Barry Steinhardt, EVEN BIGGER, EVEN WEAKER: THE EMERGING SURVEILLANCE SOCIETY: WHERE ARE WE NOW? AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION, (Sept. 2007), available at /files/pdfs/privacy/bigger_weaker. pdf.
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