Stopping the snooping of police databases
By Carol Rose and Michael German May 12, 2009
Text size – +
INFORMATION is power and law enforcement seems hungry for both. A recent report that police in Massachusetts pried into personal information about movie stars and sports heroes by trolling the Criminal Offender Record Information system is the latest example of the abuse that occurs when police and other government agencies have unchecked power to collect, use, and even share personal data about citizens.
This kind of abuse doesn't stop with the stars, and it doesn't stop with CORI. The misuse of law enforcement databases, as reported by the state auditor, can have serious consequences for ordinary residents as well as celebrities. Unmonitored access to poorly regulated databases gives power to local law enforcement to pry into and share information about innocent people and potential criminals alike.
Why would snoops stop at the latest kiss-and-tell among the stars? A curious officer might want to look up a new friend or an old enemy. After all, according to Curtis Wood of the Criminal History Systems Board, there are some 13 million transactions on the CORI system alone each month. The audit report showed that the state system lacks internal controls to identify who made these searches.
There's nothing in place to stop a return to the bad old days when police and other government agencies had unchecked power to compile dossiers on their political and personal enemies, and to turn that information over to potential employers, potential landlords, and potential lenders.
The threat goes beyond the CORI records database. CORI is just one of many databases and information-sharing systems built and operated by the Criminal History Systems Board and accessed at the so-called "Commonwealth Fusion Center." The audit report indicated police improperly searched for state and federal criminal records, FBI National Crime Information Center records, probation records, motor vehicle records, and firearms purchase records accessible through the Criminal Justice Information System. Other databases are being developed and rolled out at the Boston Regional Intelligence Center and through a combined local-FBI law enforcement hybrid known as the "Joint Terrorism Task Force." Who is going to audit these entities?
These centers are part of a nationwide network of nearly 70 "intelligence-sharing" centers that have sprung up around the country, operating with little or no independent oversight and with overlapping lines of authority between federal and state agencies, under the auspices of a National Strategy for Information Sharing.
The report that Matt Damon, Tom Brady, John Henry, and others have been subject to unauthorized snooping by local law enforcement is just the latest in a series of scandals involving these centers. At the Los Angeles County Terrorism Early Warning Center, for example, a group of military reservists and law enforcement officers reportedly engaged in a years-long conspiracy to steal highly classified intelligence files from a US Marine Corps base and the US Northern Command headquarters that "pertained to surveillance of Muslim communities in South California."
Meanwhile, the Boston Police Department is reported to have embraced a new system in which officers fill out "terror tip" sheets to report "suspicious" activities that some of us would consider commonplace, such as taking photographs of public buildings or espousing "extreme" beliefs (whatever that means). These reports are forwarded to fusion centers and accessible to a host of government agencies. Similar programs in other states led the police to detain a photography student who was taking pictures of the US flag in front of a Veterans Administration building in New York as part of a class project, and to handcuff and question a 54-year-old artist and professor for taking photographs of power lines in Washington. Presumably, they, and other innocent people, are now permanently part of this nationwide system of searchable - but unregulated - police databases.
The auditor's report on the CORI system is a first step toward restoring our privacy. The next step should be for the Legislature to pass a bill that provides oversight for the Fusion Center, BRIC, and other data-sharing centers. The Legislature also should ensure that Massachusetts doesn't enter into data-sharing agreements with other states and law enforcement agencies that lack similar privacy protections.
Federally, Congress should work with the Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department Inspectors General to conduct thorough audits of federal law enforcement information-sharing programs including fusion centers funded by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. It's time to put the spotlight where it belongs - on privacy.
Carol Rose is executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. Michael German, a former FBI agent , is policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.