The Washington Post today exposed considerable excesses by “fusion” centers organized post 9/11.
Intelligence centers run by states across the country have access to personal information about millions of Americans, including unlisted cellphone numbers, insurance claims, driver’s license photographs and credit reports, according to a document obtained by The Washington Post.
Dozens of the organizations known as fusion centers were created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to identify potential threats and improve the way information is shared. The centers use law enforcement analysts and sophisticated computer systems to compile, or fuse, disparate tips and clues and pass along the refined information to other agencies. They are expected to play important roles in national information-sharing networks that link local, state and federal authorities and enable them to automatically sift their storehouses of records for patterns and clues.
The list of information resources was part of a survey conducted last year, officials familiar with the effort said. It shows that, like most police agencies, the fusion centers have subscriptions to private information-broker services that keep records about Americans’ locations, financial holdings, associates, relatives, firearms licenses and the like.
Centers serving New York and other states also tap into a Federal Trade Commission database with information about hundreds of thousands of identity-theft reports, the document and police interviews show.
Pennsylvania buys credit reports and uses face-recognition software to examine driver’s license photos, while analysts in Rhode Island have access to car-rental databases. In Maryland, authorities rely on a little-known data broker called Entersect, which claims it maintains 12 billion records about 98 percent of Americans.
In its online promotional material, Entersect calls itself “the silent partner to municipal, county, state, and federal justice agencies who access our databases every day to locate subjects, develop background information, secure information from a cellular or unlisted number, and much more.”
“There is never ever enough information when it comes to terrorism” said Maj. Steven G. O’Donnell, deputy superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police. “That’s what post-9/11 is about.”
The last statement pretty much sums up current institutional thinking on individual liberty and national security: in the fight against terrorism, we have a moral obligation to do everything we can. Everything.
It’s scary how much that position echoes that of fascism. As promoted by Mussolini, fascism builds a moral framework based on the primacy of the state. Fasciste means a bundle of sticks, symbolizing that the group is stronger than any individual. Fascism extends that thinking, declaring that each individual’s rights exist only insofar as they support the state. Or to restate, in the defense of the state, there are no individual rights.
Which, if you think about it, is exactly what anti-terrorist programs assert when claiming that terrorism trumps the rights and privileges of the suspect or accused. Due process, protection from unreasonable searches, freedom of speech. All of these have rights have been trampled on in the name of the War on Terror. The fusion centers are just one more institution created by the mindset that brought us illegal wiretaps, extraordinary extradition, secret prison camps, extra-territorial detention, and torture.
I understand law enforcement’s position. It is easier to enforce laws when you know everything about everyone, just like in a police state (see The Lives of Others for an Academy Award-winning story of pre-information age East Germany’s police state). But it is impossible for a police state to generate the economic and social well-being that emerges in a free society… and it is that well-being which, ultimately, is the core of U.S. global power. Simply put, undermining freedom undermines US security.
In contrast, consider the subtle brilliance of Kim Cameron’s Laws of Identity, in particular, law 2:
2. Minimal Disclosure for a Constrained Use
We should build systems that employ identifying information on the basis that a breach is always possible. Such a breach represents a risk. To mitigate risk, it is best to acquire information only on a “need to know” basis, and to retain it only on a “need to retain” basis. By following these practices, we can ensure the least possible damage in the event of a breach.
At the same time, the value of identifying information decreases as the amount decreases. A system built with the principles of information minimalism is therefore a less attractive target for identity theft, reducing risk even further.
By limiting use to an explicit scenario (in conjunction with the use policy described in the Law of Control), the effectiveness of the “need to know” principle in reducing risk is further magnified. There is no longer the possibility of collecting and keeping information “just in case” it might one day be required.
The concept of “least identifying information” should be taken as meaning not only the fewest number of claims, but the information least likely to identify a given individual across multiple contexts. For example, if a scenario requires proof of being a certain age, then it is better to acquire and store the age category rather than the birth date. Date of birth is more likely, in association with other claims, to uniquely identify a subject, and so represents “more identifying information” which should be avoided if it is not needed.
In the same way, unique identifiers that can be reused in other contexts (for example, drivers’ license numbers, Social Security Numbers, and the like) represent “more identifying information” than unique special-purpose identifiers that do not cross context. In this sense, acquiring and storing a Social Security Number represents a much greater risk than assigning a randomly generated student or employee number.
Numerous identity catastrophes have occurred where this law has been broken.
We can also express the Law of Minimal Disclosure this way: aggregation of identifying information also aggregates risk. To minimize risk, minimize aggregation.
Whether or not you think the War on Terror is being handled well, it is a demonstrable fact that human systems fail. People make mistakes.
And that means we can guarantee that institutions–even when acting in our own best interest–will make mistakes, like the admitted errors of the FBI, as reported by the NYT:
WASHINGTON — Senior officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation repeatedly approved the use of “blanket” records demands to justify the improper collection of thousands of phone records, according to officials briefed on the practice.
Under the USA Patriot Act, the F.B.I. received broadened authority to issue the national security letters on its own authority — without the approval of a judge — to gather records like phone bills or e-mail transactions that might be considered relevant to a particular terrorism investigation. The Justice Department inspector general found in March 2007 that the F.B.I. had routinely violated the standards for using the letters and that officials often cited “exigent” or emergency situations that did not really exist in issuing them to phone providers and other private companies.
WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation improperly obtained personal information on Americans in numerous terrorism investigations in 2006, but internal practices put in place since then appear to have helped curtail the problems, Bush administration officials said Wednesday.
The Justice Department’s inspector general is expected to issue a report in coming weeks that updates the findings of a major investigation last year into the F.B.I.’s use of so-called national security letters, which allow investigators to obtain telephone, e-mail and financial information on people involved in investigations without a court warrant.
Last year’s report caused an uproar in Congress when it was disclosed that the F.B.I., under powers granted by the USA Patriot Act, had misused its authority to gather records in thousands of instances from 2003 to 2005. The new report from the inspector general will examine the bureau’s use of the records demands in 2006.
At the end of the day, this isn’t about any particular individual, nor even any particular violation of our constitutional rights.
It’s about addressing the systemic problems of the information age. There will always be threats to national security. There will always be the drive to get as much data as possible into the hands of a few, elite law enforcement agencies, capable of acting in the “public good”. And there will always be those individuals who break the rules, whether for good intent or malicious device. We don’t need conspiracy theories to point out the dangers of centralizing all the information about everybody.
What we need is an open-eyed approach to building information systems on user-centric principles, such as Cameron’s seven Laws of Identity. Do that and a vast number of systemic risks of the information age go away.