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One thousand cameras: how centralized surveillance snuck into American cities

One thousand cameras: how centralized surveillance snuck into American cities

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Surveillance camera nest
Surveillance camera nest

After the Boston Marathon bombing in April, every law enforcement agency in the city sprung into action. There was video to be examined, suspects to be found, and intelligence to be gathered on any larger organizations that might have been behind the attacks. It's the kind of situation the Boston Regional Intelligence Center was designed for, pulling together information from both city and federal agencies and analyzing the data in real time. But while the city had plenty of camera feeds, picking the two bombers out of the fray proved difficult. When the breaks came, they were from a more old-fashioned kind of police work: combing neighborhoods in cruisers and on foot. In the days running up to the event, when centers like BRIC are designed to shine, police were too busy monitoring Occupy Boston protestors to spot the upcoming threat.

Unfortunately for police, it's a common tale. So called "fusion centers" were one of the centerpieces of post-9/11 reform. Intelligence agencies had been caught off-guard by the attacks on the World Trade Center, unable to draw together intelligence across agencies, so fusion centers were proposed as a venue for much-needed intel sharing — but the result has been mixed. In the nine years since, the Department of Homeland Security has funded 77 different centers throughout the country, but critics say they have yet to produce any meaningful intelligence.

Police were too busy monitoring Occupy Boston protestors to spot the upcoming threat

The government response has been to double-down, building more powerfully plugged-in hubs that would have access to direct surveillance feeds alongside intel from local police. Community groups are currently protesting a planned fusion center in Oakland, funded by a $2 million federal grant. The center would draw together nearly 1,000 cameras, along with license plate scanners from nearby highways and over 100 sonic gunshot detectors — a huge step forward in municipal surveillance. But the Oakland center is far from exceptional. Last year, New York unveiled a Microsoft-designed crime prevention system that would bring together more than 3,000 camera feeds into a single centralized location.

"Oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely"

For supporters, it's the future of the police station — a single centralized location where all the city's data can be brought together in one place. Data is less useful when it’s siloed, and many of the applications simply deal in making information easier to find. One demonstration of New York’s system showed 911 operators receiving a call about a suspicious package, and being able to instantly geolocate the call, contact the nearest precinct, and check local CCTV cameras to monitor the situation in real time. Instead of getting information relayed by the caller, operators were able to see what was happening for themselves.

In other instances, fusion centers actively promoted false information

At the same time, the results from less sophisticated centers have been disappointing. A recent report from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs found fusion center intelligence to be "oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens' civil liberties." Nearly a third of the centers' reports were never published for use by Homeland Security, for the simple reason that they failed to tell the department anything useful or new. In other instances, fusion centers actively promoted false information, as when an Arizona fusion center falsely connected Gabby Giffords' shooter Jared Loughner to anti-semitic extremist groups. (The connection was later debunked, but not before it had been reported by several major networks.) Analyzing the fusion reports soon became more trouble than it was worth: as one branch chief told the subcommittee, "There were times when it was, 'What a bunch of crap is coming through.'"

Building larger, more powerful centers may be the worst of both worlds. For civil liberties groups, the centers knit together existing surveillance devices into something more invasive than the sum of its parts. With multiple sources, a subject could be followed from source to source indefinitely, instead of being limited to a single location. "It's the difference between being observed at one point and being tracked across 10 miles," says Lee Tien, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who filed a brief critical of the Oakland center.

"It's the difference between being observed at one point and being tracked across ten miles."

The rush to fund fusion centers has also drawn criticism from those concerned about wasteful government spending. "My concern is making sure we’re being efficient with taxpayer funds," says Matt Mayer, who coordinated state and local funds for the Department of Homeland Security under President Bush. "There's a utility to fusion centers, but we've built too many of them." Mayer thinks fusion centers are mostly valuable in large cities with established risk, and the glut of anti-terrorism funding has made it hard to focus on the cities that really need help. The federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on fusion centers over the last nine years, much of it coming from the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Defense. "If there were no federal funds, we'd probably have two-thirds as many," Mayer says. Instead, the money pays for more centers, and more capabilities.

But despite the criticism, the Oakland center is likely to proceed as planned. Last week, it cleared a contentious city council meeting, but aside from a few new data retention policies, the plans for the center are essentially unchanged. Thanks to the federal grant, the center is already funded, and all that's left is plugging it into existing enforcement agencies. As Mayer puts it, "If there's money, they'll build it."