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Secretive Austin "fusion center" raises civil liberties concerns

Especially because of the revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden, most Americans are probably aware by now of the shenanigans of the National Security Agency (NSA) and how it's scooping and storing just about all our E-mails, phonecalls, text messages, and other private communications.

But the NSA's activities are just a segment of a vast array of governmental surveillance spreading at virtually all levels, from federal to state to local. And to increase the intensity of snooping, the federal government has been fostering coordination and exchange of information.

With a focus on implications for Central Texas and the Austin metro area, a Feb. 25th investigative report by Julie Wilson, published by The Liberty Beat website, highlights the work of a relatively new special coordinating law enforcement agency called the Austin Regional Intelligence Center (ARIC).

As Wilson points out,

Using the September 11 attacks as justification for the implementation of ongoing domestic surveillance, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars building what they call “fusion centers,” or “information sharing centers.”

Until recently, information regarding these fusion centers has been kept secret allowing them to operate with no privacy guidelines or restrictions, and the eerie silence has led the public to question their motives and legality.

Even though Austin's ARIC fusion center is staffed by Austin Police Department personnel, the Austin City Council, whose members voted in 2009 to OK the fusion center's creation, has largely been kept in the dark about ARIC's activities, according to the Liberty Beat report. Moreover, while the city council can make recommendations, it cannot “tell ARIC what to do.”

Apparently in an effort to assuage public concern over the lack of oversight and possible threats to civil liberties posed by these fusion centers, official advisory committees are being established to ensure safeguards, monitor individual rights, and mitigate threats to privacy. But are such advisory committees more than just a fig leaf or smiley face to camouflage continuing abuses?

For ARIC, this has taken the form of a Privacy Policy Advisory Committee (PPAC), described by Wilson as "currently serving as a model for Fusion Centers across the nation...." While the PPAC, composed of several professionals including attorneys and experts in law enforcement and criminal justice, can be considered "seemingly progressive in terms of privacy rights," Wilson warns that "it’s still lacking in that any recommendations made by the PPAC can ultimately be rejected by ARIC’s Executive Board, which happens to be comprised of partner agency police officers."

On the basis of recent leaks of information from the PPAC, Wilson calls attention to several potential and actual abuses of civil liberties and privacy apparently condoned by ARIC. For example, she notes "a commonly used police tactic" described as “wall off”, involving agencies interacting and collaborating to conceal information and even entrap individuals or possibly fabricate "probable cause" pretexts for searches.

At least as alarming is the revelation that ARIC can share information not only with “multiple law enforcement jurisdictions" but also "private sector businesses responsible for the area’s critical infrastructure and key resources.” As Wilson points out, according to the Department of Homeland Security,

...“Critical Infrastructure” is the “backbone of the nation’s economy, security and health.” The government’s Critical Infrastructure Sectors include: chemical, commercial facilities, communications, critical manufacturing, dams, defense industrial base, emergency services, energy, financial, food and agriculture, government facilities, healthcare and public health, information technology, nuclear reactors, materials and waste, transportation and water and wastewater systems.

Under this definition nearly anyone in the private business sector could potentially access Fusion Center reports, including large financial institutions.

There have been significant instances of collaboration between such private entities, such as major corporations, and law enforcement personnel, involving intrusions of personal privacy and assaults on civil liberties. (See, for example, Phone Worker Exposes Government Spying Network.)

While Wilson sees the formation of ARIC's PPAC as a hopeful sign of greater "transparency" — and it's indeed useful to gain insights from occasional leaks such as she highlights — the question remains whether such relatively toothless "advisory" and "monitoring" committees really serve as anything more than mechanisms to appease critics and defuse public concern, while effecting little basic change in an ongoing secretive environment of civil liberties and privacy abuse.

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