Privacy SOS

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Over the past decade there has been a radical shift in the work of both national and local intelligence and law enforcement communities in reaction to the intelligence failures of 9/11.  Rather than insist on holding individuals and institutions accountable for mistakes that could have been avoided, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission called for a fundamental change in how intelligence agencies carried out their business.  “Stovepipes” that separated agencies and information had to be dismantled as a “unity of effort” was built across government at all levels.

The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act mandated the creation of an electronic “Information Sharing Environment” (ISE) to facilitate the sharing of information about “suspicious activity” by federal, state, and local government agencies, the private sector and members of the public.

The ISE gave birth to the National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, under which hundreds of thousands of local and state operatives across the country file “suspicious activity reports” (SARs) on even the most common everyday behaviors, such as photographing public buildings and taking notes in public.  This information, along with tips called in from the public, makes its way to the nation’s approximately 72 fusion centers, that have been developed for the express purpose of “fusing” and analyzing the information, and deciding what SARs should be moved to the “shared spaces” where it can be accessed by a wide array of agencies.


SARs from multiple agencies are also deposited in the FBI’s e-Guardian system. The FBI-led, multi-agency Joint Terrorism Task Forces have primary responsibility for investigating SARs that are flagged by fusion center analysts.

Regional and state fusion centers are intended to be the hubs of the “Total Information Awareness” approach to intelligence gathering, where data bases are housed and searched by powerful computers in the hunt for hidden patterns indicating possible terrorist activity, and threat information is distributed across the emerging surveillance network.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.