BALTIMORE COUNTY – As many Americans question the data collection programs of the National Security Agency and worry about other privacy breaches, information from license plate readers, suspicious activity tipsters and more is being collected and stored at the state level in dozens of databases around the country.
So-called fusion centers, created after 9/11, collect and sort data from municipal, state and national sources in the name of combating domestic terrorism.
But critics of fusion centers, including members of Congress and civil liberties organizations, say they often violate Americans’ privacy, waste taxpayer dollars, and have demonstrated little success catching terrorists.
In Baltimore County, the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, one of 78 fusion centers nationwide, sees itself like links in a chain, connecting doers and go-getters when the time calls.
“We were one of the first fusion centers in the country,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey Eisenberg, the official coordinator of Maryland’s anti-terrorism efforts. “What we’re set up to do is to receive information from all sources and to look at it…with some trained eye to see who then should get it.”
Tucked Away in Suburbia
Situated in an unmarked office in Woodlawn, an unincorporated suburb in Baltimore County, dozens sit tied to their desks, surrounded by flat screen televisions broadcasting the news, ready to connect the FBI to Prince George’s County Police or the U.S. Army to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and primed to dig up files from databases filled with troves of data.
In this nondescript building in a humdrum neighborhood, a couple of clicks can give an employee access to extensive databases on tens of millions of license plate numbers and the locations where they were photographed. They also have information on tips about cagey activities, such as taking odd pictures in public places.
After the 9/11 attacks, a government commissioned task force identified a gap in the intelligence community between the local and federal levels. The commission recommended increased sharing among law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The idea is to round up information that can be useful for cross-agency work.
“If a citizen calls in and says so-and-so met with so-and-so and I think there were hand grenades handed off, whatever is said has got to go into our databases,” said Eisenberg. “Let’s say it’s a terrorism tip, that information is now available worldwide at every FBI office in the world… Let’s say there’s an incident in Seattle, there’s an incident in Baltimore, there’s an incident in New York and they can be connected, there has to be a way to connect those dots.”
Maryland’s fusion center files away data from the U.S. Coast Guard, the FBI, the Maryland State Fire Marshal, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Army, most county police departments, and other federal, state and local agencies into its databases.
The “if you see something, say something” signs in Metro buses and trains list a number that connects callers directly to Maryland’s fusion center. The information conveyed over the phone may be sorted into one of the many “suspicious activity” databases the agency houses, which can later become available to the Maryland Transit Authority or NSA or many others.
Maryland’s center also utilizes license plate readers throughout the state, which have been rapidly growing in number since 2011. In 2012 alone, Maryland law enforcement agencies collected 85 million license plate records through mounted police cameras, stationary highway cameras, and other surveillance methods, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Of the 68 police agencies in the state that currently utilize license plate readers, 55 submit their data to the fusion center.
“At Some Point, Bias Kicks In”
Fusion centers around the country have been criticized for ineffectiveness and misappropriation of funds for extraneous spyware, such as hidden “shirt button” cameras and cell phone tracking devices.
Most recently, however, with the NSA under scrutiny for data collection, risks to individual privacy are of growing concern.
“It’s not that there isn’t any utility behind fusion centers and it’s not that we’re unaware or incapable of understanding the benefits of law enforcement agencies sharing information,” said David Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland. “The problem is a significant lack of control over what information is going in and thus what information is then being disseminated.”
Maryland’s fusion center does not require that the information it inputs into databases meet any standards of reasonable suspicion. This means that sharing information that has no specific link to criminal activity is not prohibited.
Michael Price, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program in New York, said that suspicious activity reporting is the “bread and butter” of fusion center work. However, what constitutes suspicious activity is something that varies from center to center.
“They do a lot of reporting on First Amendment activities: people taking pictures, a person talking to someone outside the World Bank…and a lot of Middle Eastern men are singled out,” Price said. “Which guy taking pictures of the White House is suspicious? At some point, bias kicks in. Maryland doesn’t have…the standard we’d like to see them have to filter out some of the bad and irrelevant information.”
In 2012, a 48-page Senate report by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations lambasted fusion center activity and inactivity.
The report concluded that little to no terrorist plots have been deterred by fusion center work and that fusion center intelligence is “of uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, (and) sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.”
It also condemned fusion centers for putting Homeland Security grant funds toward non-terrorism related investigations.
The Department of Homeland Security told the subcommittee it was unable to declare how much federal money had been spent from 2003 to 2011 on fusion centers, but estimated the figure to be somewhere between $289 million and $1.4 billion.
“It’s troubling that the very ‘fusion’ centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem. Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who initiated the investigation, said in a 2012 statement.
Maryland’s center was not mentioned by name in the report, and Eisenberg said the concerns expressed in it do not apply. However, the report emphasizes that its analysis is applicable to all fusion centers.
Julie Sandhaus, the Maryland Coordinator for Operation Defuse, a now defunct organization that opposed fusion centers, said that despite years of criticism from some members of Congress and civil liberties groups, fusion centers have not responded with improvements.
“There’s so much money involved that there’s no good incentive to reform,” she said.
Terrorist Here, Terrorist There
The Department of Homeland Security hails Maryland’s fusion center as an example of what fusion centers should strive to be, according to internal surveys cited by the Baltimore Sun. However, there have been issues with the program.
Five years ago, Laura Lising and 52 other Marylanders were entered into a fusion center supported database used to track alleged terrorists and drug traffickers.
Lising, an anti-death penalty activist, was confused and frightened when she received a letter in the mail from the Maryland State Police informing her that she had been labeled as a terrorist at both the state and federal levels.
The notice followed the ACLU of Maryland’s unveiling of extensive police surveillance on the public meetings and activities of peaceful anti-war and anti-death penalty organizations. The surveillance persisted for 14 months in 2005 and 2006 under the administration of former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr..
“The letter invited us to come take a look at our files in the police offices, but we weren’t being offered a copy and we weren’t allowed to take anyone in with us,” said Lising.
At a hearing, police told Lising and her fellow activists that their files would be destroyed.
“They claimed they had no backups…but our lawyers were skeptical,” Lising said. “When you have this kind of broad information sharing, destroying a file in your possession when it’s been spread across agencies doesn’t seem like much.”
The information was placed into a database accessible to Maryland’s fusion center, according to the ALCU. Although the ACLU could not determine whether the fusion center was aware of the police investigation into the activists, its report on the matter said fusion centers are “clearly intended to be the focal point for sharing terrorism-related information.”
Whether or not the fusion center knew about the investigation makes no difference, said Price. The names would not have been able to be entered if the center had clear, reasonable suspicion standards.
“Congress really needs to take a look at the money being given to fusion centers and institute a little more oversight and uniformity,” Price said. “Being generally run by state and local police, the federal government can’t really tell them what to do. We advocate bringing in an outside auditor or independent person to look at the files and verify it’s complying with the rules originally set out for fusion centers. There’s really no mechanism in place to verify they’re following procedure.”
A Different Agenda
Despite the lack of terrorism-related cases Maryland’s fusion center helps tackle, it has been useful in combatting other sorts of crime. And to Eisenberg, tracking and cataloguing general crime was a natural extension of the original task.
“It’s something that grew….information sharing (was) a problem. So that was our focus. We started to get requests for information services from various police departments and others, for things that were outside of terrorism, which is a crime,” said Eisenberg.
The fusion center has helped to reduce automobile thefts and solve drug-related cases, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Some of the Maryland fusion center’s “biggest successes,” according to Eisenberg, have been tracking missing and endangered people. The center uses the license plate readers to search for tags that could be related to abductions.
Eisenberg also emphasized the importance of information fusing to promote public health. One such example is syndromic surveillance.
“Health officials are in touch with pharmacies, doctor offices, and hospitals routinely,” he said. “If they start to see something that needs to be looked at more strongly, then (we) alert the public or an agency…It doesn’t have to be an anthrax attack but it could be. It could just be a simple virus.”
Price said the reason for the mission creep is likely less noble.
“They were created for terrorism and you see them dealing with all crimes and all hazards, like natural disasters. I think part of the reason is, thankfully, there aren’t a lot of terrorists running all around the country. So there isn’t much work and they have to get something done to justify the money coming in,” he said. “As they grow…they’ve had to expand their mandate for lack of work, which poses the question of whether that dilutes the original mission.”