ACLU Releases New Report: What's Wrong With Fusion Centers

By: Nicole A. Ozer

The American Civil Liberties Union today released a new report outlining serious concerns about new institutions called "fusion centers," which have been created in over 40 states around the nation.

California is home to seven fusion centers, including two in San Francisco and two in Sacramento.

Fusion centers vary widely, but generally are centers intended to improve the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among state, local and federal government agencies and the private sector.

But, this "anti-terrorism intelligence" information being collected in these databases seems to include a immense amount of data about the daily lives of Americans and many of these fusion centers are operating with little oversight, boundary-setting, or checks and balances.

The DOJ Fusion Center Guidelines (large pdf) includes a list – which it says is "not comprehensive" – of potential types of information fusion centers could incorporate. Some of the sources included on the list were:

  • Private sector entities such as food/water production facilities, grocery stores and supermarkets, and restaurants.
  • Banks, investment firms, credit companies and government-related financial departments.
  • Preschools, day care centers, universities, primary & secondary schools and other educational entities providing information on suspicious activity.
  • Fire and emergency medical services in both the public and private sector such as hospitals and private EMS services.
  • Utilities, electricity, and oil companies, Department of Energy.
  • Private physicians, pharmaceutical companies, veterinarians.
  • The gaming industry, sports authority, sporting facilities, amusement parks, cruise lines, hotels, motels, resorts and convention centers.
  • Internet service and e-mail providers, the FCC, telecom companies, computer and software companies, and related government agencies.
  • Defense contractors and military entities.
  • The U.S. Postal service and private shipping companies.
  • Apartment facilities, facility management companies, housing authorities.
  • Malls, retail stores and shopping centers.
  • State and child welfare entities.
  • Governmental, public, and private transport entities such as airlines and shipping companies.

And it is unclear what procedures are being used to ensure the accuracy and safety of this data. A California fusion center representative complained in the November 13, 2006 edition of the publication Federal Computer Week, that compliance tasks required to manage law enforcement data sharing regulations "require an enormous amount of work," then suggested that by establishing "memorandums of understanding with data sharing in mind, they can move data from one database to another without worrying about someone else's data warehouse policies."

The ACLU agrees that the ostensible purpose of fusion centers – improving the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among different levels and arms of government – is legitimate and important. However, the ACLU's study of fusion centers raises serious questions that fusion centers are playing fast and loose with important privacy laws and oversight safeguards.

The California legislature – as well as Congress – must lift the cloak of secrecy, examine these centers closely, and make certain that they are acting within both federal and state law and that there are proper accuracy, privacy and security safeguards in place.

The ACLU report identifies five specific problems with fusion centers as they currently exist:

Ambiguous Lines of Authority. Overlapping jurisdictions create the potential for manipulation of differing laws to evade accountability.

Private Sector Participation. Fusion centers are incorporating private corporations into the intelligence process, further threatening privacy.

Military Participation. Fusion centers are involving military personnel in law enforcement activities in troubling ways.

Data Mining. Federal fusion center guidelines encourage wholesale data collection and manipulation processes that threaten privacy.

Excessive Secrecy. Public oversight, individual redress and the very effectiveness of fusion centers are threatened by excessive secrecy.

For more information about fusion centers, a list of questions you should be asking DHS and elected officials, and to download the report, please click here.

Nicole A. Ozer is the Technology & Civil Liberties Policy Director with the ACLU of Northern California.