Privacy SOS

Still going, despite the government shutdown: the DHS-funded trickle down of the national surveillance state

Shortly before the government went on extended shutdown/vacation, the Department of Homeland Security signaled that, despite criticism from members of congress and the public, it has no intention of slowing down the nationwide surveillance state trickle-down.

At the end of the summer, just months after the Marathon bombing, Massachusetts congressman Bill Keating announced the metropolitan Boston region would receive $17.5 million in funds from DHS for the next fiscal year. Local government representatives say those monies will be spent on bomb equipment, more surveillance cameras for the networked urban area system, and operating expenses for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), the regional ‘fusion center’.

Also in late August 2013, DHS issued a list of authorized equipment its grantees can purchase with agency funds. The list contains references to all manner of intelligence sharing, surveillance, rescue, forensic, and paramilitary gear. Among the many categories of equipment cops can purchase with DHS funds is ‘Terrorism Incident Protection Equipment’, stuff the Boston region will likely scoop up to the tune of millions of dollars.

Available for DHS grantees like Boston are data mining tools, information sharing systems, face recognition software, and investigative models used to analyze intercepted communications. The list of technologies reads like something you’d expect at the FBI and CIA rather than at your local police department.

Data Acquisition: Software for data collection and information / intelligence gathering, including data mining and search tools that support inferential analysis, including trend analysis.

Data Exchange and Interoperability: System or software designed to facilitate the exchange and interoperability of data on extramural or legacy systems such as databases, dispatch systems, records management systems, and other systems containing data useful in terrorism incident prevention.

Data Fusion/Synthesis: Software, system or suite for accepting disparate inputs and producing organized information. May use multiple sensor inputs to develop a situational picture, and/or multiple inputs from different intelligence sources to create a correlated set of accessible data.

Software, Facial Recognition: Facial recognition software for access control, identification of criminal actors (IFF), etc.

Fees, Usage, for databases containing terrorist threat information: One-time or recurring fees for the use of commercial databases containing terrorist threat information.

Systems, Intelligence Sharing: Implementation of and connectivity to network-based systems to enhance intelligence and information sharing capabilities.

Software, Investigative, Signals Intelligence: Investigative software for collating and analyzing data from signals intelligence such as Pen Registers and wiretap management tools.

These technologies are supposedly meant to help local law enforcement stop terrorism before it strikes. But what do they actually do? And why?

Surveillance state trickle down: a dangerous quid pro quo

The biometric recognition tools described above stand out as an example of a trend I’ve been monitoring for years: the quid pro quo exchange of money for information between the feds and locals.

The DHS equipment document specifies that grantees may only purchase face recognition software that conforms to the DHS standard, “INCITS 385-2004, Information technology – Face Recognition Format for Data Interchange”. Open source information shows that INCITS 385-2004, established in 2004, was created to “to assist federal agencies, state and local officials, vendors, and travelers in producing photographs that will be accepted for use in travel documents.”

The same federal government that wants to ‘collect it all’ where our communications and associations are concerned also wants to ensure that our travel document photos can be put to good use to identify us at political demonstrations, on city streets, in photographs from private surveillance cameras, or online. If DHS (or any other agency) wants the local cops to find someone, they can ask police to use DHS-funded surveillance cameras and DHS-funded, specific facial recognition software to do it. If there is one standard nationwide, it is easy for DHS and likely other agencies to interact with and query local databases and operate local systems.

Like with its gifts to state and locals for purchases of electronic fingerprint readers, license plate readers, surveillance cameras and other technologies, the federal government gets a lot in return for its investment in face recognition systems nationwide. Likewise, when DHS gives money to your state or local police department to run a fusion center or to beef up a city police department’s intelligence capabilities, it is expanding exponentially the federal intelligence network’s reach.

Funding state and local law enforcement to acquire the tools used by the national security state gives federal agencies deep and broad access into American public and private life — access it would not have were it not for the eager participation of local law enforcement. The trickle down of the security state therefore serves not only local cops — who love the toys — but also the federal spies.

Does the trickle-down of the security state keep us safe? If not, why does it simply get worse?

The Department of Homeland Security advertises this expansion of powerful surveillance capabilities to locals as a necessity in the post-9/11 environment, and most local police departments are eager for the resources and equipment. If we want to stop terrorism, the refrain goes, every local cop and sheriff’s department needs to be in the counterterrorism loop, armed with the latest gadgets and flush with information from all the best commercial and private (public) databases.

But will data mining by local police or expanded use of face recognition systems stop terrorist attacks? Hardly.

Contrary to what the many three-letter agencies say, there is no terrorism profile that computers can identify by processing large reams of information. Data mining for terrorism purposes simply doesn’t work. If it did, more than a decade into the ‘collect and mine everything’ 21st century, the Boston Marathon bombing wouldn’t have happened.

To the contrary, experts say that adding more crap into the intelligence ‘haystack’ makes it more difficult — not less — for investigators to identify truly dangerous people among us. Even analysts at another post-9/11 government intelligence bureaucracy, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), report being unclear about what their jobs are, and think the intelligence apparatus is too big. The analysts say they are drowning in information, and that there are too many employees clogging up the intelligence gears.

Add to those criticisms multiple congressional reports finding that fusion centers don’t serve a useful counterterrorism purpose, and that DHS is wasting money by throwing it in the billions at state and local law enforcement without sufficient oversight.

If it doesn’t stop terrorism, why is the government turning our local cops into spies? Why doesn’t congress act to stop the flow of funds from DHS to our local police for surveillance gear and information sharing systems, in the absence of evidence that it does anything to keep us safe, and given that we know these programs adversely impact our privacy and liberty?

It’s not likely that (the absence of) evidence about efficacy alone will move congress to take significant action to rein in the expansion of the security state. There are at least four major reasons for that disconnect: cover your ass political games, institutional inertia and self-interest, the growing wealth and political power of the corporate surveillance complex, and the government’s desire for social and political control.

None of those reasons are good ones, particularly given the threat to free society posed by the institutionalization of intelligence-lite technologies and procedures at our police departments nationwide. As just one example among many, the government’s funding of the Boston Regional Intelligence Center did nothing to stop the terrorist attack in Boston in April 2013 – but it did hurt our city.

Back in 2011, the DHS funded fusion center in Boston was busy spying on the Occupy Boston encampment. At the same time, it missed a gruesome, spectacular triple-murder on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 — a crime the authorities now pin on accused terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Finding terrorists among millions of data points is next to impossible. Spying on peace and economic justice groups is easy.

Occupy Boston posed no threat to the public, but unlike terrorists, it arguably posed a threat to the continuation of DHS programs like this one.

Mass surveillance effects social and political control, not security. If our local police departments want to keep us safe, they should focus on police work like solving murders. Police departments trying to become more like the CIA harms both our public safety and our democracy. But even amidst a government shutdown and with an economic crisis ever looming on the horizon, congress somehow always finds money for these dangerous programs, and local departments are eager to implement them – even in the face of public opposition and outcry.

It won’t be easy, but if you want to do your part at the local level to stop the ‘intelligence’ takeover and militarization of our police departments, take action. The alternative is gifting future generations a world without security or freedom.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.