What’s the BRIC?
The Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) is one of nearly 80 “fusion centers” the federal government’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funded and built after the 9/11 attacks. The BRIC was established in 2005, as a “counterterrorism intelligence” center meant to facilitate information sharing about terrorism among local, state, and federal agencies. It is one of two “fusion centers” in Massachusetts; the other, the Commonwealth Fusion Center in Maynard, is run by the Massachusetts State Police. The BRIC oversees spying and information sharing for the entire Metro Boston Homeland Security Region (MBHSR), which includes not only Boston but Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Quincy, Somerville, Revere, and Winthrop. The BRIC receives local, state, and federal funding. Learn more about BRIC funding.
Why do fusion centers exist?
The government has long justified the creation of fusion centers by pointing to the 9/11 Commission Report’s finding that a “failure to connect the dots” was one of the reasons the government failed to stop the attacks. But that underlying claim about “what went wrong” on 9/11 applies to federal—not state or local—agencies. Gaps in information sharing among local and state police and feds had nothing to do with 9/11. The real intelligence failure leading to 9/11 was a breakdown in communication between the FBI and the CIA, which prompted failures to share information about the hijackers and their activities in the United States prior to September 2001. The CIA also failed to act on information about the hijackers it already had. In other words, fusion centers were created to address a problem that didn’t exist. Meanwhile, the CIA and FBI largely escaped responsibility for their failures. Instead of focusing on why the FBI and CIA failed to use or share information already at their disposal, the federal government funded an unprecedented expansion of the “national security state”—reaching far beyond the federal government and extending into every state and major city in the country, including Boston.
What have fusion centers done?
Fusion centers were initially justified by pointing to the 9/11 attacks. But terrorism didn’t justify the creation of nearly 80 counterterrorism spy centers across the country or the billions of dollars invested into them, because thankfully, terrorism is not a significant problem in the United States. (You are more likely to be killed by your own furniture than by a terrorist attack in the US.) Leaders of fusion centers realized this, and realized that their funding might be in jeopardy if they didn’t change something. So in the years following their creation, fusion centers shifted from “counterterrorism” to “all crimes/all hazards” detection. What that means in practice is that fusion centers took the billions of dollars in local, state, and federal funding meant for “counterterrorism” work and directed it at the routine targets of government spying: Black and Latinx people, Muslims, immigrants, and dissidents. Much of this spending is used to fuel the racist, deadly “war on drugs.”
- Waste money;
- Violate civil rights and civil liberties;
- Produce sloppy, often useless, and duplicative “intelligence”; and
- Didn’t once contribute any meaningful information towards stopping a terrorist attack anywhere in the country.
The billions of public dollars invested in fusion centers didn’t lead to anything useful for the people of the United States, Congress found. But all that money did lead to a spending bonanza for cops, to buy things ranging from flat screen televisions to covert surveillance equipment. It also led to untold numbers of civil rights and civil liberties violations.
BRIC’s ugly history
Since its founding in 2005, the BRIC has engaged in countless abuses of civil rights and civil liberties, particularly against Black and brown people.
- Attacks and undermines protected First Amendment rights.
- BRIC spied on anti-war organizations, labeling them domestic extremists and writing long “intelligence reports” about their lawful political activities. These reports even swept up information about former City Councilor Felix Arroyo, the father of current City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo and current Register of Probate for Suffolk County. The files documented then-Councilor Arroyo’s participation in an antiwar event in Jamaica Plain; no illegal activity was alleged. Read the ACLU of Massachusetts and National Lawyers Guild report on this spying, “Policing Dissent.” You can also read the so-called intelligence reports.
- Records obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice found the BRIC obsessively documented First Amendment protected activities at Occupy Boston.
- Years later, BRIC was caught using social media software to track Black Lives Matter activists, Muslims using ordinary words connected to their faith, and students organizing a school walkout to protest budget cuts.
- BRIC policy allows these abuses to take place. It explicitly allows the BRIC to collect, share, and process information that does not meet the reasonable suspicion standard. In other words, BRIC’s policy allows its employees to collect and share information about people who are not suspected of breaking the law.
- Puts immigrants and immigrant youth in ICE’s crosshairs.
- According to records obtained by Lawyers for Civil Rights, the BRIC shared sensitive information about Boston Public Schools students with ICE over 140 times, leading to at least one deportation, and initiated BRIC profiles of several students that eventually lead to their arrests and long-term incarceration by ICE, even for students who were never alleged to have committed any criminal act.
- The Boston Police Department staffs an ICE task force, facilitating the city’s ongoing and extensive collaboration with immigration authorities. The BRIC plays a major role in this collaboration as well.
- BRIC uploads sensitive information to a state maintained intelligence database called COPLINK. ICE agents have direct access to COPLINK.
- At least one employee from the Department of Homeland Security actually works at the BRIC, alongside BPD employees, FBI personnel, and police from across the region.
- BRIC shares information from its notorious “gang database” with ICE, leading to the deportation of young people.
- Collects, shares, and uses information derived from racially biased surveillance.
- The BRIC hosts the BPD’s “gang database.” 97 percent of the people in the database with race documented are Black and Latinx.
- BRIC employees can add people to the database even if they have never been suspected of participating in gang related violence. Living in the “wrong” neighborhood and knowing the “wrong” people is enough to get Black and brown people labeled as gang members, a designation that can stick with a person for decades. Once a person is so designated, the police are more likely to routinely harass them as they go about their daily life in their community.
- While the BPD refused to provide information to the ACLU about its gang database, prompting a public records lawsuit, the Department allows college interns to view the personal information of people designated as “gang members” and to write reports about them. (Strangely, the document revealing this disturbing fact was removed from Northeastern’s website prior to publication of this post.)
- The BRIC hosts the BPD’s “field, interrogation, observation” database, which is used to keep track of mostly Black and brown people’s social relationships and activities. 70 percent of people in the database are Black, while the city is only 24 percent Black.
- Lawyers for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), the state public defender’s office, are involved in litigation related to the BPD’s use of social media surveillance to target Black and brown people. The lawyers have filed a discovery motion seeking information about the racial breakdown of people targeted in this surveillance, suspecting the BPD’s online surveillance is as racially biased as the Department’s street level stops. The BPD tried to stop this information from coming to light.
- The BRIC collects “suspicious activity reports” and shares them with the federal government, including the FBI. These reports have been shown to be useless from a public safety perspective, and are likely to reflect bias and discrimination against Muslims.
- The BRIC hosts the BPD’s “gang database.” 97 percent of the people in the database with race documented are Black and Latinx.
- Adopts and deploys surveillance technology in secret, without any democratic oversight or accountability.
- Social media spying. In 2015, the BPD tried to buy a $1.4 million social media surveillance system, without any public process, oversight, or City Council authorization. After advocates found out about the plan, they mobilized hundreds of people to call the mayor and the City Council. Only then did the BPD back off.
- Drone surveillance. In 2017, My’Kel McMillen, a resident of the Mildred Hailey Apartments in Jamaica Plain, saw BPD officers flying a drone in his community. He notified the ACLU, which filed a public records request asking for information about drones. The BPD produced records showing the department had purchased drones in secret, without any democratic debate or oversight. The BPD claimed it had never flown the drones over the Hailey apartments, despite the fact that McMillen saw and took pictures of officers doing exactly that.
- Tracking cars and motorists. In 2013, the BPD was caught using license plate readers to track where motorists go and when across the city. A review by the Boston Globe found that the BPD placed most of the surveillance devices in Black, brown, and lower-income communities. After these disclosures, the BPD backed off its license plate reader surveillance program. But documents recently obtained by the ACLU show the BPD has been working behind the scenes to create a regional license plate reader surveillance network, in Boston and surrounding cities.
- A secret surveillance camera network. For the past 15 years, the BRIC has been instrumental in establishing a regional surveillance camera system in concert with police departments and other government agencies throughout the metropolitan region. Records obtained by the ACLU indicate that there are thousands of surveillance cameras in this surveillance network, allowing a police officer from Quincy or Revere to log in to the system and view real time or historical footage from any camera in the network, including cameras in Boston. Boston police can likewise view camera feeds from cameras in the other participating cities and towns. (Note that Cambridge years ago passed an ordinance withdrawing its cameras from this network, citing privacy concerns.) The BRIC has refused to provide the ACLU with a map showing the locations of its cameras, claiming doing so would harm public safety. But we suspect that most of the cameras are in Black, brown, and lower-income communities. Records obtained by the ACLU show the cops use sophisticated video analytics software called BriefCam to automatically analyze video footage, enabling them to track specific cars, items of clothing, or groups of people.
- Shields itself from both individual and organizational public records requests.
- Counsel for individuals who know that they have been subject to FIOs by Boston Police have filed public records requests to obtain those FIOs, only to be denied that information based on the claim that the information is exempt from disclosure under G.L. c. 4, § 7(26)(f). Despite this claim, the BPD turns over these exact records to the Department of Homeland Security, which produces them in court to allege that a young person is a threat to public safety.
- There is no process by which a person may challenge information about them held in the BRIC. But even if there were, people don’t know what types of information BRIC holds about them, preventing them from even attempting to challenge the legitimacy or accuracy of the information.
- BRIC and the Boston Police Department have declined requests from organizations including the ACLU to produce records regarding their policies, procedures, training materials, compliance mechanisms, and other relevant information necessary to understanding the functioning of the BRIC.
- Shares information with corporations, while refusing the public’s right to know.
- The BRIC maintains an information sharing system called BRIC Shield. According to the BRIC, “The Department has developed a comprehensive information sharing partnership with our public and private sector stakeholders called BRIC Shield. There are more than 1,000 stakeholders from the private sector and non-governmental organizations across the Metro Boston Region registered to receive and share information through BRIC Shield for public safety and homeland security purposes. The information shared includes the latest crime bulletins, pattern and trend analysis of criminal activity in the region, international, national and regional analysis of homeland security incidents and threats as they relate to the region, real time alerts and situational awareness updates.”
- These reports are not made available to the general public, but are provided to major corporations that may be the targets of legitimate, First Amendment protected protest.
- The BRIC does not make public which companies and NGOs receive BRIC reports through the Shield program.