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The organized chaos of data sharing

December 10, 2013 - Ben Klein
A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, a public-policy institute at New York University law school, expands upon the work by the Washington Post and the Guardian on surveillance capabilities and data sharing between local, state and federal law enforcement.

Over the last decade federal funds have "poured in" to police departments to "fullfill their new, unfamiliar role as the 'eyes and ears' of the intelligence community. Special intelligence and counterterrorism units were created including the Joint Terrorism Task Forces which investigage terrorism cases and data fusion centers."

What Happens When Police Create Suspicious Activity Report

"What we found was organized chaos: A sprawling, federally subsidized, and loosely coordinated system to share information that is collected according to varying standards with little rigor and over sight," said Michael Price, a counsel with the Brennan Center and the author of the report.

16 major police departments, 19 affiliated fusion centers, and 14 JTTFs were surveyed for the report.

"We do know, however, that the information sharing system built in the last decade has serious flaws. And these flaws may jeopardize both our safety and our civil liberties. The Brennan Center has identified three major reasons the system is ineffective: 1. Information sharing among agencies is governed by inconsistent rules and procedures that encourage gathering useless or inaccurate information. This poorly organized system wastes resources and also risks masking crucial intelligence.

2. As an increasing number of agencies collect and share personal data on federal networks, inaccurate or useless information travels more widely. Independent oversight of fusion centers is virtually non-existent, compounding these risks.

3. Oversight has not kept pace, increasing the likelihood that intelligence operations violate civil liberties and harm critical police-community relations."

Read the full report and the recommendations here.

The Brennan Center report follows the Washington Post story on Monday that found law enforcement "made more than 9,000 requests last year for what are called "tower dumps," information on all the calls that bounced off a cellphone tower within a certain period of time, usually two or more hours, a congressional inquiry has revealed."

"Tower dumps raise in the law enforcement context some of the same concerns presented by the NSA's mass collection of phone records without a warrant, when large amounts of data on law-abiding citizens are gathered to find clues about a small number of suspects, privacy advocates and some industry lawyers say. But unlike the NSA collection, which is bound by court-imposed rules on retention and use, the standards for obtaining tower data and the limits on its use by a plethora of agencies are inconsistent and unclear,"

the Washington Post reported.

"This isn't the NSA asking for information," Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) told the Washington Post. "It's your neighborhood police department requesting your mobile phone data. So there are serious questions about how law enforcement handles the information of innocent people swept up in these digital dragnets."

The Washington Post also reported the data may be obtained without a warrant.

"In general, the data may be obtained with a showing to a judge that it is relevant and material to a criminal investigation based on a 1986 statute, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. That is a lower standard than for a warrant, which is based on probable cause that the data will yield evidence of a crime.

The senior Justice Department official said a warrant is not required because the Supreme Court has held that Americans have no expectation of privacy in "dialing" data, such as the phone numbers they called. That is information given to the phone company by the customer, and the court has held that it is not protected by the Fourth Amendment, he said."

This week has also seen the publication of the only story concerning surveillance by local police departments that is even remotely close to Western Pennsylvania as part of collaboration by USA Today and Gannet Newspapers and TV stations.

From WGRZ:

"The records, from more than 125 police agencies in 33 states, reveal:

• About one in four law-enforcement agencies have used a tactic known as a "tower dump," which gives police data about the identity, activity and location of any phone that connects to the targeted cellphone towers over a set span of time, usually an hour or two. A typical dump covers multiple towers, and wireless providers, and can net information from thousands of phones.

• At least 25 police departments own a Stingray, a suitcase-size device that costs as much as $400,000 and acts as a fake cell tower. The system, typically installed in a vehicle so it can be moved into any neighborhood, tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police. In some states, the devices are available to any local police department via state surveillance units. The federal government funds most of the purchases, via anti-terror grants.

• Thirty-six more police agencies refused to say whether they've used either tactic. Most denied public records requests, arguing that criminals or terrorists could use the information to thwart important crime-fighting and surveillance techniques.

The Rochester Police Department is one of those who denied the public records request.

"It's a secret whether or not the Rochester Police Department owns surveillance equipment designed to scoop up bulk data about the cellphones of thousands of people — even if that equipment was paid for with federal money, the city said recently.

The city denied a Democrat and Chronicle Freedom of Information request asking whether it had purchased a device called a Stingray, a suitcase-sized device that acts as a fake cell tower and tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police. The device is marketed to police for use in surveillance."


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