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Centers Tap Into Personal Databases

"Fusion centers have grown, really, off the radar screen of public accountability," said Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonpartisan watchdog group in the District. "Congress and the state legislatures need to get a handle over what is going on at all these fusion centers."

Fusion centers were formed in the wake of revelations that counterterrorism and law enforcement authorities missed or neglected evidence that the Sept. 11 attackers were in the United States while preparing to strike.

Because they are organized by the states, the centers have developed in different ways. Some are small operations focused on crime, while others are full-fledged criminal and counterterrorism operations. From 2004 to 2007, state and local governments received $254 million from the Department of Homeland Security in support of the centers, which are also supported by employees of the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies. In some cases, they work with the U.S. Northern Command, the Pentagon operation involved in homeland security.

The centers have been criticized for being secretive, but authorities said that this is largely for security reasons. Activists want to know more about their activities, the kinds of information they collect and how the information is being used.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit in Virginia last month seeking the release of records about communication among state fusion center officials and the departments of Homeland Security and Justice. Marc Rotenberg, the privacy center's executive director, said his group was responding to a proposed state law that would sharply limit access to records about the fusion centers' activity.

Sue Reingold, deputy program manager in the Information Sharing Environment office, a federal operation with a mandate to improve information sharing, said state and local officials "must have access to a broad array of classified and unclassified information" to perform their mission. But Reingold said that an "important part of this is appropriate training and oversight that is well understood and transparent to the public."

"Fusion centers are vital to state and local efforts to fight crime, including terrorism," she said.

The list includes a wide variety of data resources along with software that finds patterns and displays links among people.

Most of the centers have subscriptions to Accurint, ChoicePoint's Autotrack or LexisNexis. These information brokers are Web-based services that deliver instant access to billions of records on individuals' homes, cars, phone numbers and other information.

Some of the centers link to records of currency transactions and almost 5 million suspicious-activity reports filed by financial institutions with the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Massachusetts and other states rely on LocatePlus, an information broker that claims that it provides "the most comprehensive cell phone, unlisted and unpublished phone database in the industry." The state also taps a private system called ClaimSearch that includes a "nationwide database that provides information on insurance claims, including vehicles, casualty claims and property claims," the document said.

The center in Ohio has access, through authorized users, to an FBI "secret level repository," the document said.

Rhode Island reported that it has access, also through the FBI, to "Top Secret resources" such as "Proton, which allows queries of CIA databases," the document shows. Officials at the Rhode Island State Police, FBI and CIA declined to discuss the system and the kinds of information it contains.

In addition to databases run by Entersect, Maryland fusion center analysts have access to wage and property records, corporate charters, utility records and a host of government files, including criminal justice information and traffic tickets. Jason Luckenbaugh, the center's chief of staff, acknowledged concern about the government's ability to tap into new sources of information. But he said the databases enable analysts to fight crime and protect against terrorism, and help local authorities do the same. "We're not trying to threaten them in any way," he said.


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