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In response to the nation’s desire to increase preventative measures against crime and terrorism, the last decade has seen the emergence of numerous fusion centers across the nation. Fusion centers are a new kind of governmental entity designed to better facilitate the collection and sharing of information by various governmental agencies. Such fusion centers now exist in most states, with multiple centers in some states. Many fusion centers are federally funded, and the current stimulus package bestows another $250 million for their further development.
Many governmental agencies are notoriously unskilled at cooperation, and the need to improve the information sharing process as agencies work toward common goals was highlighted by the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Fusion centers were proposed as an answer to this need. However, the creation of state and local fusion centers presents concerns for those worried about the privacy and individual liberties of American citizens. These concerns have increased as the fusion centers’ focus has expanded beyond strictly terrorism prevention to encompass prevention of all types of crime.
So what exactly do fusion centers do? Critics would respond that the frequent lack of a concrete answer to this question is part of the problem. Many efforts to gain information about the activities of fusion centers by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have proven unsuccessful. This secrecy and lack of oversight, some activists claim, make fusion centers ripe for abuse. The ACLU’s report on fusion centers urges that such centers should only be operated with appropriate transparency and accountability to protect the rights of citizens, stating:
There’s nothing wrong with the government seeking to do a better job of properly sharing legitimately acquired information about law enforcement investigations – indeed, that is one of the things that 9/11 tragically showed is very much needed. But in a democracy, the collection and sharing of intelligence information – especially information about American citizens and other residents – need to be carried out with the utmost care. That is because more and more, the amount of information available on each one of us is enough to assemble a very detailed portrait of our lives.
At least one fusion center has been accused of crossing the line from legitimate information gathering to discrimination against certain groups. Several of the privacy concerns are identifiable even by the Department of Homeland Security’s assessment of the fusion centers.
In New Mexico, the tangible result of such privacy concerns has taken the form of proposed legislation that would allow private citizens a cause of action for state information gathering that goes too far. According to Time magazine, the legislation would prevent any state “law enforcement agency from collecting information about the religious, political and social associations of law-abiding” citizens.
So, should citizens be protected from such invasive information gathering efforts and be allowed to enforce that protection by suing? Whether the drafters of New Mexico’s proposed legislation have it right is yet to be seen, but the idea of interconnected information gathering centers that have been granted tremendous resources and free reign should give anyone pause.
The principles of freedom held dear in this country are seriously threatened when individuals’ rights of privacy are not appropriately balanced with the need for their physical protection. Technology has made it easier than ever to collect and distribute massive amounts of information about individuals, which leaves potential for serious abuse by government officials. The fusion centers may remain to be a valuable tool to ensure that information collected by agency investigations is quickly analyzed and shared, but, of course, it is also important that adequate oversight be implemented to ensure that citizens’ fundamental privacy rights are not abused.