It’s not every day that Elevated Risk gets to report on a local story. But yours truly works from Austin, Texas, and on May 3 the city’s Public Safety Commission here in the heart of the Lone Star State held a meeting on the area’s police intelligence fusion center. The event at Austin’s City Hall became a microcosm of what we’ve seen nationally: protests that the centers haven’t developed strong enough policies to protect civil liberties and privacy rights.
A small but vocal group of Austin residents, convinced that the centers will give police too much power, shouted at the commissioners as they voted almost unanimously to recommend that the City Council give approval for the facility to move forward. However, there was one holdout vote from a local judge.
More than 70 fusion centers have been constructed around the country with the help of over $250 million from the federal government, largely if not completely from anti-terrorism and preparedness grants. Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies say the centers make it easier to exchange critical information about possible terrorist threats. But the centers have also quickly expanded their missions to include everyday crimes partly to justify the expense of maintaining them.
Civil liberties advocates have increasingly complained that the centers, hoping to detect terrorist planning, will go too far in collecting sensitive personal information like financial records that belong to people who haven’t committed a crime. We additionally wrote last week that the federal government is close to implementing a nationwide program for gathering “suspicious activity reports,” which fusion centers will help collect and analyze.
Commissioner Ramey Ko:
Let me pose this question to you as maybe a hypothetical. Let’s say someone working in the [fusion center], some individual employee is discovered to have compromised the privacy of someone resulting in some kind of damages, such as exposing personal health and financial information in a damaging manner. Well, who would that person sue? Would it be just that agency itself, or since the city of Austin and the [Austin Police Department] are really the overseers, recipients of the grants specifically, would we as a city also end up being liable – potentially liable – for at least legal costs if not damages?
Assistant City Attorney Kristy Orr:
I don’t know how to answer that question at this point in time. I’d have to look into it.
Ko also showed that there were not easily understood procedures for citizens to correct information in intelligence databases used by the fusion center if police records wrongly designated someone a criminal or even a terrorist. States like Minnesota, on the other hand, allow citizens to obtain police files on themselves and take action if they’re unfairly portrayed as criminal suspects. We’ve
Texas is all the more noteworthy due to a local magazine last year discovering that another fusion center in the state was disseminating intelligence memos to hundreds of police officials containing far-fetched claims, including that the federal Treasury Department may be attempting to adopt an economic variation of Shariah law in the United States. Reportedly, a former scientist for the defense contractor Raytheon Co. who was involved in data-mining projects there and his wife have been paid more than $1 million in no-bid contracts since 2004 to run that center. The memos caused an uproar when they became public.