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State Fusion Center gathers local, state and federal law enforcement data

Data hub troubles privacy advocates


DATA DUMP SITE: The Fusion Center, which collects information from police agencies, is housed at State Police Headquarters.
  • DATA DUMP SITE: The Fusion Center, which collects information from police agencies, is housed at State Police Headquarters.

If you're like most Arkansans, you probably didn't know the state had a Fusion Center, much less what it does.

A hub for the sharing of information between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, the Arkansas State Fusion Center is housed at Arkansas State Police headquarters in Southwest Little Rock, and has a dedicated team of analysts parsing and distributing intelligence gathered by law enforcement as it comes in. It's one of over 75 state and city fusion centers scattered all over the United States. The centers collect data from local law enforcement but also share information with one another and the federal government, creating a kind of neural network that includes thousands of law enforcement entities, from tiny police departments all the way up to federal agencies like the INS, CIA and FBI.

Bill Sadler, a spokesman for the State Police, said that "99 percent" of the day-to-day work of the Fusion Center involves collecting and distributing information on multijurisdictional, mostly run-of-the-mill crimes. However, many privacy advocates, including the ACLU of Arkansas, are concerned about the system's hunger for data and where that might lead.

The first fusion centers were established in 2003, and quickly spread across the country with the encouragement of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Every state in the U.S. has at least one of these intelligence hubs, with some states having multiple fusion centers at the state and local level. Texas, for example, has not only the Texas Joint Crime Information Center, but also centers in San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Houston. As many fusion center critics note, there are no uniform federal guidelines governing the operation or scope of fusion centers, the information they can collect, or how long that information may be stored.

That non-uniform regulatory landscape, access to federal intelligence gathering, and the idea that fusion centers might be collecting, sharing and storing information on fringe groups of Americans who've committed no crimes, has had privacy advocates up in arms since the first fusion centers opened. Fusion center critics haven't only come from outside government, either. An October 2012 report by the bipartisan U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations stated that the centers "often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever." Other parts of the same report found that some fusion centers had employed constitutionally questionable intelligence gathering on groups and individuals, while others had wasted public money on items like spy cameras and large flat-screen televisions to watch cable news.

Created by a proclamation by Gov. Mike Beebe on May 19, 2008, and opened in July 2009, the Arkansas State Fusion Center has a staff of four permanent state employees and a handful of other staffers assigned there by outside law enforcement agencies on a rotating basis. Participating agencies include the Department of Homeland Security, the Arkansas Department of Correction, the Arkansas Crime Information Center and others.

The Fusion Center privacy policy says the center will seek and retain information for a number of reasons, including information that "is based on a criminal predicate or possible threat to public safety," and/or "is useful in a crime analysis or in the administration of criminal justice and public safety." The guidelines go on to say: "The ASFC may retain information that is based on a level of suspicion that is less than 'reasonable suspicion,' such as tips and leads or suspicious activity report (SAR) information." A suspicious activity report can originate with law enforcement, but also can originate from the public, including, as has happened, SAR reports filed about people deemed suspicious merely for taking photos of public property and infrastructure.

The policy goes on to say that the center will not seek or retain information about "individuals or organizations solely on the basis of their religious, political, or social views or activities; their participation in a particular noncriminal organization or lawful event; or their races, ethnicities, citizenship, places of origin, ages, disabilities, genders or sexual orientations."

Rita Sklar, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said that while the ACLU believes it's important for federal and state agencies to be able to share data that might prevent terroristic attacks, the process needs to be transparent and performed under strict guidelines to protect privacy as information is being gathered.

"Who can collect it, what can be collected, how is it validated, how is it used?" she said. "Most people don't even know these things exist, so it's been cloaked in secrecy. It needs to come out in the open and there needs to be legal guidelines that are open for scrutiny by the American people. People should be able to find out what kind of information has been gathered [about them]. It's their information."

Another troubling aspect of the fusion center concept, Sklar said, is that there appear to be no guidelines as to whom the information can be shared with once it has been collected. She noted reports of fusion centers sharing information with private-sector corporations.

"I think it would make anybody uneasy to know that they are not just gathering information on terrorists, but on anybody who may have fallen under their scrutiny for some reason or another that we don't know," she said. "Every state fusion center operates pretty much under its own guidelines, and we don't think that's right, either. We think there should be a uniform set of guidelines so we know what's going on."

In March 2013, Arkansas State Fusion Center Director Richard Davis caused an online stir among privacy advocates and fringe political groups after he told a Northwest Arkansas television station during an interview (during which he insisted on being seen only in silhouette) that the center was focused, in part, on collecting information about anti-government groups.

Arkansas State Police spokesman Sadler said the ASFC isn't keeping tabs on anti-government groups.

"I think what [Davis] was referring to," Sadler said, "is that any anti-government group [that] might plan a rally, or who might plan some type of protest, that information would be retained and shared with law enforcement agencies in the area where this group may plan to stage a protest, or stage some sort of event."

As an example, Sadler talked about a Ku Klux Klan rally held in Monticello in late July. Sadler said there was "a lot of information being shared with local law enforcement" before the rally.

"That information passed through the Fusion Center," he said, "and was shared with area law enforcement agencies just so they would be aware to be on guard should there be trouble."

Asked if it was proper for the Fusion Center to be compiling and distributing intelligence on a group planning what appeared to be a legal and constitutionally protected gathering, Sadler said: "I think you have to realize, if you look across the country at some of these gatherings, occasionally there are outbursts of violence, and it would be irresponsible of law enforcement, particularly a state agency, if they knew that there was an individual that had infiltrated that group that may have a criminal record, who is known, based on his arrest records, to carry weapons. Then why not share that with the local law enforcement agency?"

Sadler said it's important to note that the Fusion Center "does not retain any records of individuals as far as phone calls, names, addresses." He described it as "an information-sharing facility about known events [and] known threats." Sadler said that the day-to-day work of the ASFC is sharing information on incidents that might be occurring in multiple jurisdictions: missing persons reports, people passing stolen or falsified checks, and thefts. That information can lead to the discovery of larger patterns. As an example, Sadler said that examination and analysis of reports could lead to the knowledge that someone might be assembling the materials for a bomb like the one that destroyed Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in April 1995.

"If a law enforcement agency such as a sheriff's department made a report internally to their department that a large amount of ammonium nitrate had been stolen, and that deputy goes in and files his report, then the sheriff's department shares that with the fusion center," he said, "and within a day there's a report from two of three counties over that a large truck also containing some diesel fuel had been stolen. At that point in time, [for] the analysts in the fusion center, that would be, through their training, a red flag."

Sadler said that sharing intelligence on mundane crimes and helping small departments identify suspects are "really the bread and butter" of the ASFC, accounting for the vast majority of its daily workload. He said information was rarely pushed down to the center by federal agencies.

"Now, does that mean that we don't get information of some national concerns?" he said. "Sure. That's passed along. But I think it's important, if you're going to do a story on the Fusion Center, that you make it very clear that the Fusion Center does not retain any records of individuals as far as phone calls, names, addresses. It is an information-sharing facility about known events, known threats. ... There is no classified information that passes through."

Asked about the privacy concerns of groups like the ACLU, Sadler said that the ASFC follows the U.S. Constitution as they go about their activities.

"Just because you have a Fusion Center doesn't mean you can go out here and start putting on your Secret Squirrel uniform and start looking at people's emails and phone records," Sadler said. "Privacy is a concern among the public, but law enforcement knows — at least the Arkansas State Police knows — that we have to abide by the United States Constitution and the laws of the land."

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