Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Fusion centers

Amidst all the furor (justified, I'd say) over the NSA's surveillance of Americans' phone calls, a new measure is being introduced in law enforcement . . . one that, I think, should give rise to concerns analogous to those produced by the NSA's activities.

I refer to "fusion centers," which seem to be a relatively recent development. You can read more about them here, on the U.S. Department of Justice's website. You can also find the newly issued guidelines for fusion centers on this site.

The guidelines will explain what a fusion center is. Basically, it is being cast as a new tool in our battle against terrorism, though it is clear that fusion centers will focus on criminal activity, as well.

What does a fusion center do? What is the point of a fusion center, you ask?

Well, a fusion center is designed to do one thing: aggregate and analyze information. The purpose, according to the USDOJ site, is to establish a "collaborative process to improve intelligence sharing and, ultimately, increase the ability to detect, prevent, and solve crimes while safeguarding our homeland."

What's wrong with that, you ask? Well, I'm not necessarily saying there is anything wrong with it (I'm not saying there isn't either . . . I'm just ruminating, at the moment). What I find particularly interesting at this point is time is that the NSA activities are receiving a lot of attention and generating a lot of furor, while fusion centers seem to have remained totally under the radar even though they have been in existence for at least 3 years.

What, precisely do they do, you ask? They will apparently do many things, but their central function, it seems, is to collect data from public and private sources and "blend" the data together to create "meaningful and actionable intelligence and information." The guidelines and other sources I have found on fusion centers emphasize that they will compile information from both traditional law enforcement sources and from the private sector.

Some of what I have read about fusion centers indicates that they are intended to address extant jurisdictional gaps that undercut law enforcement's ability to share information. So, you might have a fusion center in a state (Texas has one, as does Maryland, Massachusetts and, I believe, 25 other states, with more states preparing to jump on the bandwagon) which would ensure that law enforcement information gathered by, say, the Sheriff's Office in County A was available to law enforcement officers in the other counties in the state. That seems umproblematic. They might also share this information outside the state, with law enforcement officers in other states and with federal agencies. That, too, seems unproblematic.

What I find interesting is the notion of bringing the private sector into the mix. Doing that takes the concept of a fusion center beyond that of simply compiling and sharing a law enforcement data set (or a series of law enforcement data sets) into something . . . different, something that is more reminiscent of what the NSA has been doing. The guidelines for fusion centers don't really tell me how and why the private sector will participate in this.

The two really go together. Start with how: Will private sector entities become part of these fusion centers, so that their data sets automatically become part of the fusion center's data set? Or will the private sectors only provide data that is/could be relevant to particular inquiries?

That takes us to why: Why would private sector entities become involved in this endeavor. Will they be selling data to the fusion centers, in the same way private data aggregators currently sell data to federal and state law enforcement agencies? Will they voluntarily (why?) become part of the fusion centers, collaborators in the process, and contribute the data they hold as part of their oblibation as constituents of the fusion center? Or will they only contribute data in response to whatever legal devices (National Security letters, administrative subpoenas, other subpoenas or court orders) the fusion centers may employ to require them to do so?

Lots of questions. No answers yet. More to come, at some point, when I know more.

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