Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Privacy Abuses continue to raise questions about law-enforcement "fusion" centers

In the wake of concerns over the Missouri Information Analysis Center's strategic report on The Modern Militia Movement, Libertarians and other Americans concerned with increasing government are now discovering that there have been disquieting questions about the operations of such centers for years.

The Libertarian Party of Missouri has demanded an immediate apology from the State of Missouri:

“Not only is this assertion baseless, it is outrageous and very dangerous,” stated Missouri LP spokesman Mike Ferguson, who was also the national field director for the Barr presidential campaign in 2008. “It is also misleading. Libertarians oppose the violence, racism and extremism of the ‘militant militia’ that MIAC expresses concern about. Anyone who understands basic libertarian thought knows we adamantly oppose any violence for political purposes.”

“The evidence is not offered because it is not there,” explained Ferguson, “the claims amount to political profiling.

The Missouri Libertarian Party is asking for meetings with Missouri State Highway Patrol Col. James Keathley, MIAC Director Van Godsey, Department of Public Safety Director John Britt and Governor Jay Nixon to correct the misinformation. The party also demands that the potentially libelous statements about the Libertarian Party and Bob Barr are removed from the training document and calls for a public apology from those responsible for the irresponsible MIAC “strategic memo.”

But the real dange of such fusion centers, as the Department of Homeland Security itself admits, is not so much the bizarre, sophmoric research efforts, but the propensity for misuse of personal information and mission creep. Indeed, an internal DHS analysis of privacy issues specifies these areas of concern:

1. Justification for fusion centers
2. Ambiguous Lines of Authority, Rules, and Oversight
3. Participation of the Military and the Private Sector
4. Data Mining
5. Excessive Secrecy
6. Inaccurate or Incomplete Information
7. Mission Creep

The report is worth reading, if only to discover precisely how a government Privacy Office white-washes legitimate concerns over such potential abuses.

Here is a single, brief example:

4. Data Mining

Some program reviewers are concerned that fusion centers will conduct unchecked data mining, equating the term “data fusion” with “data mining.” Although the Homeland Security Act of 2002 requires the Department to utilize data mining, the term is not well understood by the public, and the Privacy Office acknowledges that data mining may raise privacy concerns. Each year, DHS reports on its data mining activities, applying a definition supplied by Congress. Reports for 2006, 2007, and a letter report for 2008 are on the Privacy Office’s public facing website, A data call is underway for an update to the 2008 report. Later in the year, the Privacy Office will conduct a public data mining workshop to explore validation models for data mining and privacy-enhancing technologies such as anonymizing and auditing tools. The Privacy Office will update this PIA as it learns more about fusion center data mining activities.

This paragraph is a monument to semantic double-speak. First, it asserts that people have a concern about data mining, because they inaccurately confusion it with data fusion. But in the next sentence the report acknowledges that DHS is required to engage in data mining. The follow-up sentence essentially says, "We don't do anything not authorized by Congress," without providing the Congressional definition of what that is. You are then referred to the Privacy Office's website, where the annual reports tell you virtually nothing more than this paragraph does. The Office then promises to engage in more research, and (this is the killer) to learn more about what actually goes on in the fusion centers, which is a blatant admission that the DHS Privacy Office either does not know or is not willing to discuss publicly what State law enforcement fusion centers are doing.

Similar bureaucratese dominates all other portions of DHS's own evaluation of privacy issues.

The ACLU quickly jumped on this report to explain that it didn't actually say anything:

The ACLU has been a leading critic of the centers, which have also been the topic of at least one hearing of the House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee in the 110th Congress. The ACLU's top lobbyist Caroline Fredrickson has complained that the centers differ in significant ways and there is no single model or standards by which their data gathering and sharing activities are governed. Lawmakers must have a discussion about guidelines and the private sector's role in the data swapping, she said. "In a multiagency environment when it's unclear which agencies' rules apply, very quickly, no rules apply," added ACLU policy counsel Mike German.

Almost unnoticed by the MSM, the ACLU also released a scathing report of improper conduct by the NorthTexas Fusion cCenter late last month:

WASHINGTON – A Texas fusion center's “Prevention Awareness Bulletin” made public last night is the latest example of inappropriate police intelligence operations targeting political, religious and social activists for investigation. The North Central Texas Fusion System bulletin states that it is “imperative for law enforcement officers to report” the activities of lobbying groups, Muslim civil rights organizations and anti-war protest groups in their areas.

“This memo is not a plea for legitimate intelligence, and seems to endorse discrimination against Muslims,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The idea that the tolerance advocated by the groups being targeted would be treated as a menace to American security demonstrates a disregard for civil liberties and a disdain for democracy itself. The kind of indiscriminate and unlawful investigations this bulletin calls for always results in a chilling effect on free speech and association.”

The federal government has facilitated the growth of a network of fusion centers since 9/11 to expand information collection and sharing practices among law enforcement agencies, the private sector and the intelligence community. There are currently 70 fusion centers in the United States.

"It should be obvious with the constant news of increased violence in Mexico that Texas needs law enforcement to focus on real criminal threats instead of targeting religious minorities and groups with unpopular political opinions." Rebecca Bernhardt, ACLU TX Policy Director said, "The North Central Texas Fusion Center should be reviewed to determine whether it can contribute to the serious public safety mission of Texas or not."

Proponents have claimed all fusion center personnel receive civil rights training, and that this training is sufficient to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans living in the communities where fusion centers operate, but this is obviously not the case. The ACLU has long warned that ambiguities regarding who controls these fusion centers and a complete lack of oversight over their intelligence activities would lead to violations like this.

“The Texas fusion center's bulletin shows an unhealthy disregard for constitutional rights and democratic processes,” said Michael German, ACLU National Security Policy Counsel and former FBI Agent. “It demonstrates the lack of professionalism that exists at fusion centers and the severe lack of oversight at the state, local and federal levels. According to its website, North Central Texas Fusion System bulletins are disseminated to thousands of people in over a hundred different agencies, and this report directs law enforcement officers to ‘report' on the political activities of advocacy groups. The web of connections it weaves – drawing parallels between Muslim civil liberties groups, lobbying organizations, peace activists, hip hop bands, a former congresswoman and even the U.S. Treasury Department – would be comical if not for the real consequences that these organizations and individuals might face.”

But Texas and Missouri are not the only fusion centers to come under fire for privacy and civil rights violations.

In Virginia, activists recently went to court to challenge (successfully, thank God!) the ability of fusion centers to go after records in the hands of such terrorist hotbeds as veterinarians and pre-schools, and to stop the legislature from taking away the right of citizens to find out what data is being collected about them and challenge its accuracy:

According to some civil rights advocates, the Virginia Fusion Center may be one such bad example. The agency came to the public’s attention in December 2007, when its supporters introduced a bill in the Virginia Assembly exempting it from the state’s privacy and open government laws. The measure, which became law with a signature by Governor Tim Kaine, makes it impossible for Virginians to find out what information is being collected about them, said Jennifer Perkins, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.“It’s dangerous because it opens the door to secret government spying,”Perkins says.The legislation was written and passed under pressure from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which would only agree to share its data with Virginia if the state exempted federal workers from privacy laws, according to Colonel W. Steven Flaherty, leader of the Virginia State Police, in an interview published in The Virginian-Pilot newspaper. Homeland Security has other guidelines for fusion centers, including suggestions that they obtain data from preschools, mental health professionals, hospitals, cell phone and e-mail companies, hotels, even veterinarians. Data from such sources “support efforts to anticipate, identify, prevent, and/or monitor criminal/terrorist activity,”the guidelines say.

Note what this example tells us. In the DHS Privacy Office report, the Feds asserted that they didn't really know what kind of data mining was occurring in different fusion centers. Here, Virginia officials explain that the Feds not only know what is happening, but are in fact issuing directives and demanding changes to State laws to make it happen.

So much for the credibility of self-regulation by government watchdog agencies.

In Ohio and California, the local fusion centers have moved into the murky area of indicriminately getting Americans to inform on their neighbors for engaging in LEGAL behaviors:

In addition, Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, encouraged local police in January to begin reporting non-criminal activity to fusion centers. Some centers appear to be cooperating. On a brochure, the Ohio Fusion Center (a separate agency from the Northeast Ohio Fusion Center) asks people to call in tips if they witness anyone “taking notes, using cameras, maps, binoculars, etc.” The Los Angeles Police Department now encourages its officers to report legal activities to the local fusion center, called the Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center, including “espousing extremist views”and “taking pictures or video footage with no apparent esthetic value.”

“If police officers are now supposed to be judging whether a photo has aesthetic value, should we send them to art school?”German asks. “These are such common, innocuous behaviors that the policies open the door to racial profiling."

Moreover, fusion centers are blurring the lines between law enforcement agency databases and corporate databases, as is the case in Maryland:

The Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center partners with Entersect, a company in California that maintains 12 billion records on 98 percent of Americans, according to a recent story in The Washington Post. The company uses that data to help law enforcement agencies “develop background information, secure information from a cellular or unlisted number, and much more,” according to the company’s web site.

Bascially, what has happened is that the Federal government has now infected the States and localities with the idea that nearly all privacy issues--even when the behavior in question is legal--should be subordinated to the government's need to know. Here's a story from Minnesota Public Radio:

St. Paul, Minn. — Police have always had the authority to ask us what we're doing if our behavior is suspicious.

These days with heightened awareness of terrorism if a police officer sees someone taking picture after picture, for example, of the underside of the new I-35W bridge in Minneapolis they are likely going to draw the attention of police. The picture taker may be asked to identify himself, says Minneapolis police department information sharing and analysis center supervisor Lt. Rick Duncan.

The person's identifying information may then be sent to Minnesota's fusion center, MNJAC, in downtown Minneapolis at the regional FBI offices for sharing with others.

"We can send that around to all 50 fusion centers and say, 'Hey, have you seen any similar patterns, has there been an increase in this type of a pattern, should we be more aware of this type of activity?' and we get feedback from that," Duncan says.

So not only is the picture-take asked to identify himself, but self-identification becomes consent to have your information sent to every fusion center in the country, and to be logged--without due process or external review--as having engaged in suspicious behavior.

The danger here? Talking Points Memo lays it out:

Once someone is profiled -- using invalid or valid information -- law enforcement and contractors will increase their contacts to gather more information. Once a target refuses to respond to these ruses or overtures, that lawful refusal or declination used as a pretext to increase the pressure and illegal activity to gather (false, trivial) "incriminating" evidence. Americans are punished for exercising their rights.

Recently, President Obama made the following argument about safeguarding America's food supply:

Obama said while he doesn't believe government has the answer to every problem, there are certain things that only government can do such as "ensuring that the foods we eat and the medicines we take are safe and don't cause us harm."

The argument here is that the food industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself.

Strangely enough, the government does not seem to think that this standard should be applied to it.