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New intelligence ‘fusion center’ fuels privacy concerns

Friday, August 7, 2009 by Austin Monitor

City Council heard an earful from residents and privacy rights advocates over a proposed “fusion center” which would use federal money to gather and share information about citizens with the aim of crime prevention. Although Council ended up voting unanimously for a resolution which would allow $200,000 of grant money to secure a physical facility for the fusion center, the concerns citizens voiced seems to have contributed to increased scrutiny over the domestic surveillance center.


Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo introduced the item, saying that this fusion center would share criminal and investigative data between regional agencies in order to “connect the dots” and aid crime prevention. “In this part of the state we don’t do a very good job of sharing information,” he said, expressing optimism that the fusion center would alleviate that. The center would take an “all hazards, all crimes” approach to intelligence gathering, which elicited concerns from a disparate coalition of community members.


There are currently 70 operational fusion centers across the country, and the track record they have accumulated seems to have offended citizens across political spectrums. Acevedo promised that the Austin center would be different and pledged, “I want council and public to know we are going to adopt very strict privacy guidelines… and will be sharing those policies and discussing them with council.”  Leaked fusion center directives and memos have revealed that they often target groups perceived by law enforcement to be a threat to the political establishment. Ron Paul supporters, Constitutional Party members, Historically Black Colleges, and anti-war advocates have all come under the watchful eye of fusion centers across the nation.


The Austin center, which aims to be operational by December of this year, would share information between the APD, Travis, Williamson and Hays County Sheriffs’ Departments, Pflugerville, San Marcos and Georgetown as well as EMS, the Fire Department and the Travis County Healthcare District, ostensibly to catch epidemic outbreaks.


Laura Martin, policy analyst with the ACLU of Texas was skeptical. “Fusion centers undermine our basic rights to privacy, and fail to make us safer,” she said. “All crimes all hazards is an alarmingly over-broad mandate,” she said later and expressed concerns that the data would “include not only arrest and investigation data but other information like credit reports, library records, bank statements and travel records.”


Debbie Russell, president of the Central Texas Chapter of the ACLU and John Bush, director of Texans for Accountable Government also spoke at length about the concerns they had for the fusion center.


Bush said the fusion centers would be “interoperable” and share information across government agencies from the CIA and FBI down. He noted that “suspected activities” could also fall under the purview of fusion centers and that the broad net they cast would have “a chilling effect” on free speech. Russell reminded council of a 2003 resolution the city passed expressing concern that the Patriot Act “threatens fundamental rights and liberties” amongst other charges.


Council Members Laura Morrison and Mike Martinez said they have been concerned about the lack of public process with the fusion center. Martinez said that although discussions had been taking place for two years, there were still plenty of unanswered questions. Morrison worried aloud that this lack of community involvement was developing into a pattern.


Morrison eventually proposed a motion that would postpone voting on the lease negotiation, the specific item before council. Council Member Bill Spelman seconded the motion and opened up a line of inquiry with Acevedo. Spelman wondered who would be monitoring the center and what governing documents would control its actions.


Acevedo said that APD would be consulting with stakeholders and the community in the next month and draw up a governing document by the end of September. He told Council that all the entities engaging with the fusion center would have to sign the same Memorandum of Understanding, which would have to be approved by Council.


Spelman asked if  in the MOU there would be a provision that says we can audit you whenever we thought it was necessary and verify that you actually were following the policies.” Acevedo said this could be incorporated into the governing document and encouraged oversight of the center.


Council Member Sheryl Cole said she “feels comfortable that this body can guarantee that a public process will occur in connection with this item.”


Martinez surmised, “This is simply a lease for a facility. There is still a lot of community conversation to be had moving forward. While there are still major concerns I think we have time to answer those questions and this agenda tem is really unrelated.” Martinez, following a small chorus of boos and hisses, proposed an amended motion that would enable the $200,000 to be spent setting up the facility. The revised motion passed unanimously.

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