With fusion centers, privacy is a serious — and touchy — subject

Agencies involved in fusion centers say they take privacy seriously. But they're reluctant to say much else about the subject.

When time-sensitive data moves or mingles, privacy becomes a concern.

A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union argued: “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’s because, increasingly, the amount of information available on people is enough to assemble a very detailed portrait of their lives — and because security agencies are moving toward using such portraits to profile how suspicious someone might be.

The report went on to warn that “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.”

And Robert Riegle, director of the Homeland Security Department’s State and Local Program Office, said it’s not just a concern for civil liberties groups.


Related stories:

State fusion centers look to expand beyond counterterrorism efforts

Fusion center approach could be effective in other areas

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“We take the commitment to respect and protect the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties of American citizens seriously,” Reigle told Congress last year. “We partner with the DHS Privacy Office, the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and the Office of General Counsel to make sure that all of our efforts are consistent with our obligations to the American people. We require all [intelligence and analysis] staff assigned to fusion centers to receive specific training and to have subject-matter expertise on all relevant privacy, civil rights and civil liberties issues.”

Nevertheless, the ACLU’s concerns about the openness of fusion center activities seem justified in some cases.

GCN had little success in obtaining interviews with officials at state fusion centers and federal agencies involved with fusion centers. Although the Homeland Security Department agreed to an interview, it was made clear in our initial contact with the department that officials did not want to provide an interview if we focused the article on privacy concerns.

As for state fusion centers, only one state out of eight we tried to contact — Minnesota — agreed to an interview in time for this article. One other state fusion center did respond with queries about the nature of the article, but the response was too late for this article.

One reason for fusion center officials' reluctance could be that in the past, some federal agencies discouraged openness.

For example, a memorandum of understanding between the FBI and Virginia in February 2008, which was obtained by the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, indicates that any disclosure to Congress of information shared with the fusion center can happen only "after consultation with the FBI."

Perhaps not coincidentally, the one state fusion center that did agree to an interview also is prohibited by its state’s privacy laws from participating in federal programs such as the National Information Exchange Model or N-DEx, an FBI database that collects information from law enforcement agencies around the country.

“Right now, there is legislation that won’t allow us to submit data,” said Mike Bosacker, commander of the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center. “The legislators in this state are very suspicious of the feds.”

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