On Oct. 21, 2009 a Massachusetts state legislator introduced a bill designed to prevent intelligence collecting procedures in the state from violating First Amendment rights. The bill would add oversight to the activities of the state’s fusion center and would prohibit collecting political or religious views of individuals unless it pertained to an ongoing criminal investigation. In light of several controversial fusion center reports warning about anti-war activists and third party politicians, civil liberty advocates praised the bill as providing “reasonable checks that will help to keep Massachusetts residents both safe and free.”
State Senator Harriette Chandler’s, (D-Worcester) “An Act Regarding the Commonwealth Fusion Center and Other Intelligence Data Centers (Senate bill 931),” would rein in certain data gathering activities of the state’s Commonwealth Fusion Center (CFC). Like other fusion centers across the country, CFC does not have an independent privacy board but acts as a warehouse for data from public and private sources. This information is made available to a broad range of law enforcement agencies in the state without clear guidelines on what information is to be collected or for how long it is to be stored. The many concerns about fusion centers, including their surveillance operations on places of worship and on peaceful political activists, are discussed in the ACLU’s report, What’s Wrong with Fusion Centers?
Additionally, the ACLU released another report in 2008 criticizing the CFC’s “Standard Operating Procedures” which allows “police officers to attend public meetings to gather intelligence even when there is no reasonable suspicion of illegal activity.” They cited an incident at Harvard University where a plain clothes officer was “caught photographing people at a peaceful protest for “intelligence gathering” purposes.”
According to the Daily Kos, the CFC “operates with virtually no independent oversight, no regular compliance audits, and without quality controls.” The bill would establish a body to conduct regular data protection and privacy oversight on the fusion center. Headed by a commissioner, the new office would be “independent of any supervision or control by any executive agency” and have access and oversight over all the facilities’ activities. It would issue regular reports and would have the power of subpoena. The bill would also allow individuals to view and correct information about themselves held by the fusion center’s database.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts said in a press release, “[p]roviding law enforcement officers with uniform, clear standards that safeguard the rights of all Massachusetts residents, and maintaining strong oversight, will ensure that abuses are caught, corrected, and prevented.”