Fusing California

Welcome to the terrorism database. You're in it.

  • Fusion centers exist to merge categories of personal information together that would otherwise remain separate.
    Photo by Jim Sher/Flickr

When it comes to our personal information, many of us assume our privacy is protected. Most of our friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and family members know some things about us. Perhaps one or two loved ones know much about us. We certainly do not expect our personal information to be available to a random army of people we have never met. And yet America’s Network of Fusion Centers is setting out to do just that. We’ve all seen the iconic images of increasingly militarized policing in the United States feature tanks rolling through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and camouflage-wearing officers wielding assault weapons while patrolling downtown shopping districts. But law enforcement militarization also has invisible aspects, none more so than the surveillance data that flow out of a growing number of devices, ending up in places we might never expect.

Based on the idea that 21st century information-sharing among a large number of agencies—including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, National Security Agency, Drug Enforcement Administration, and local police, fire, hospital, and emergency departments—will provide a shield against acts of violence, the 78-strong national fusion-center network ensures that a lot of data follow us around wherever we go and whatever we do.

Fusion centers exist to merge categories of personal information together that would otherwise remain separate: crimes like drug possession and prostitution, medical records, meta-data telephone surveillance with emergency reports, and people threatening retaliation against U.S. interests abroad with domestic voices of protest. In other words, this makes as fluid as possible the definition of each agency’s targeted area of jurisdiction. There is probably not an American alive who has not been tracked by one of these agencies. Welcome to the terrorism database. You are in it. This is not rhetoric.

Davis Rittgers at the Cato Institute provided several cases demonstrating the ways fusion network centers use definitions of what constitutes a threat that not only collapse agency jurisdiction, but also basic civil rights protections and the bounds of common sense. For example, a North Texas fusion center had a threat category called “Muslim Lobbyists,” a fusion of the legally protected activity of talking to elected officials and that of practicing a religion in a country where freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution. Another fusion center in Missouri defined “Third Party Voters” as a potential terrorism threat, an act that takes aim at Nader voters, which is going a little too far. Other examples include the Maryland State Police placing anti–death penalty activists into a federal terrorism database, and on the other side of the partisan divide, Pennsylvania Homeland Security officers placing members of a local Tea Party group and Second Amendment advocates onto a watch list.

Since so much data from fusion centers is provided to the public in sketchy and incomplete form, it’s also very easy to make it seem like innocent people have been targeted because of their political beliefs. It is possible that in addition to their political beliefs, some individual’s drug consumption habits, medical records, and traffic tickets have exposed patterns that cause legitimate concern. Perhaps the fusion center analysts were able to put together missing pieces that allowed a future violent criminal to pass as a garden variety death penalty activist or Capitol Hill lobbyist of the Muslim persuasion.

But what serves as federal oversight of the national network of fusion centers does not support this optimistic theory. A bipartisan report to the Senate in 2009–2010 reported fusion centers processed 22,000 suspicious activity reports that year. They launched 1,000 investigations. Two hundred pieces of data provided actionable intelligence, translating to nine-tenths of one percent of all information processed.

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