Imagine that somewhere close to your local community there exists a secret computer center. Equipped with powerful mainframe computers and the database integrating powers of XML, this government-funded facility gathers data from thousands of sources including local, state and federal law enforcement, social welfare agencies, hospitals, banks, telephone companies, ISPs, computer search engines, private security companies, schools–essentially an endless list. With its massive computing power, this secret outpost is able to search and sift this data using vaguely defined criteria like “suspicious activity” in order to identify individuals for even closer scrutiny. Finally, this computer center dispenses the results of its analyses to local, state and federal law enforcement and to the military so that they can take action against the citizens tagged as threats.
Such a scenario is no longer the product of a paranoid, over-stimulated imagination. It is a reality called “fusion centers,” forty of which have been established throughout the United States. Initially part of the “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) program headed by Bush buddy and Iran-Contra convict Admiral John Poindexter, fusion centers suffered a setback when Congress de-funded TIA back in 2003 because of privacy and civil liberties concerns. But an idea that grabs so much government power at the expense of its citizens’ privacy always has a phoenix-like ability to resurrect itself, and so the fusion center initiative has been reborn under the Department of Homeland Security’s “Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative” and been provided with $380 million in funding for 40 installations throughout the country.
These fusion centers are usually located deep in the bowels of some state law enforcement agency (you can find your local one using this map). All forty coordinate and share data with each other, but no single agency, Congressional or otherwise, has oversight authority over them.
Civil liberties organizations like the ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center see the fusion centers as a huge threat to privacy and even democracy. They thought they had been successful in stopping such a massive data gathering initiative when TIA was defunded, but today, there are forty fusion centers up and operating in the United States.
Why should you care if you aren’t planning to crash some airlines into skyscrapers? Think for a moment about how fusion centers operate.
Say that you’re planning to have a neighborhood get together. You head to the local supermarket and pick up a few of those big pork and beans cans and plenty of bottled water and soft drinks. Of course, you give the clerk your shopper card to save a few bucks. The record of your purchase heads to the supermarket’s central database which they have patriotically agreed to share with the local fusion center. The out-of-the-ordinary purchase is flagged because the government is on the lookout for survivalist types who are stocking up for Doomsday and thus violating anti-hoading laws. Your bottled water purchase is cross-checked against other records, and the following turns up:
· recent ammunition purchase made with a credit card (for a quail hunting outing, but they don’t know that)
· unusually large cash withdrawal of $3,000 (for buyng your neighbor’s used car for your kid)
· visits to “questionable” political web sites like the one where you’re reading this (information courtesy of your ISP)
The fusion center computer is now in a frenzy because of the obvious threat you pose to national security. Thanks to the kind of speed that $380 million can purchase, it spits out your name and address just in time for the heavily armed SWAT team to show up at your barbecue. Seriously, anyone who doesn’t think that all this unsupervised information collecting poses no threat to democracy needs only to remember those government employees poking through Barack Obama’s passport records to understand what fusion centers could mean for democracy.
The sad fact is that no one is going to shut these fusion centers down in the forseeable future. The best we can do is to cut their access to our information by practicing good personal privacy habits. Don’t use that supermarket card or a credit card when you make purchases. Guard your privacy against ISPs and search engines by using an elite proxy or VPN. Encrypt your email.”