Privacy SOS

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 departments, 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.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.