Privacy SOS

Part II. Expanding Surveillance Powers and Technology

Expanding the Surveillance Footprint

The emerging surveillance state relies on more than the 16 federal agencies that make up the “intelligence community” to feed its databases. It has erased old public-private barriers, federal-state-local jurisdictional boundaries and key distinctions between crime fighting and intelligence-gathering to enlist state and local police, the private sector and members of the public in the hunt for pre-crime.

Today, some 800,000 local and state operatives are being encouraged to file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) on even the most common everyday behaviors. Police sardepartments, often working directly with the FBI through the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), sift “tips and leads” provided in field reports, through public tip lines, by private entities, by confidential and anonymous sources, or culled from media sources. Time that used to be spent investigating reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is now allocated to assessing this information to decide whether it should be deposited in the Information Sharing Environment (ISE) and fed to the hubs of the national domestic surveillance network, the regional and state surveillance “fusion” centers.

Now numbering 72, surveillance fusion centers were established over the past six years to “fuse” and analyze information from a wide variety of sources and databases, and facilitate information sharing between local and state entities and the federal government. Soon most fusion centers changed the focus of their data collection from fighting terrorism to a broad “all crimes, all hazards” mission. Many now use federal counter-terrorism funds to collect, store and share data that has little or no relation to terrorism and in many cases, no relation to actual crimes.

In the process, the line between traditional crime fighting and terrorism detection has been blurred, and something new has been born: a concept of policing that is no longer primarily reactive and focused on solving crimes or on collecting concrete evidence that a crime might be about to be committed. In “predictive policing,” local police officers serve as a resource for gathering information on a range of potential threats and situations on the assumption that criminal activity can be stopped before it develops. When the net is cast so wide, everything and anything begins to look like “terrorism-related activity,” forcing police officers to waste time checking out dead end tips. Valuable time is also wasted in the attempt to broaden access to secure computer systems that may not be compatible and to figure out ways to restrict unauthorized access to those systems without impeding the flow of data.

When local police work with the FBI in JTTFs, they become federal officers who are no longer under the supervision of and accountable to their local departments and communities. And when they participate with fusion centers in information collection and the building of personal files about activities that can be wholly innocent and may be constitutionally protected, they are integrated into a domestic surveillance network that is national in scope, beyond accountability, and far removed from community policing and the public trust.

Mass Focus: What's the matter with MASSGANGS?

Ever hung out with the wrong crowd? Know anybody who has a tattoo they regret? Lived or worked in a rough neighborhood?

Because of MASSGANGS software, now in use throughout Massachusetts, having the wrong tattoo and standing in the wrong place at the wrong time can be cause enough for you to end up as a gang suspect, entered into a large and growing database that seeks to map out gang activity throughout the Commonwealth.

MASSGANGS allows cops to enter someone into the database as a gang suspect based on a filmsy set of supposedly identifying factors, such as the way the person dresses, whether the person has particular tattoos, and even where or with whom the person hangs out. A point for wearing a red bandana, a point for hanging at this particular corner, and a point for being married to the cousin of a known drug suspect and wham! You are officially a gang member, according to MASSGANGS.

Once someone is entered into the database, that information is shared not only with law enforcement and corrections officials statewide, but also with New Jersey law enforcement and the FBI. The data is entered into the federal gangs database, the Violent Gang and Terrorist Offender File (VGTOF).

No need for you to have committed a crime or even to be suspected of committing a crime. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong outfit and standing next to the wrong person can be enough to put your name in an increasingly complex and interwoven system of national criminal databases. And if that happens? You may be in for life.

© 2023 ACLU of Massachusetts.