Fusion Centers in Minnesota

What are fusion centers?
Fusion centers can be thought of as local versions of the National Security Agency (NSA), funded via a combination of DHS grants, state funds, and local police budgets. They were developed after 9/11 to provide “joined-up intelligence” that would integrate local police “hints and tips” with insights from federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in the hope of preventing terrorist attacks.

What is the history of Fusion Centers in Minnesota?
The Minnesota Joint Analysis Center (MNJAC) was created May 2005 by the Department of Public Safety, the FBI and several local police departments. Its deployment costs were covered by nearly $4 million in federal homeland security grants received by the state between 2005 and 20071. Notably, the privacy policy governing its information gathering/analysis was created “with the advice of a 9 member committee… [including] civil libertarian and 1st Amendment advocates”, and its activities are “monitored by an oversight board”2. Intelligence is shared and collected via suspicious activity reports (SARs) from a variety of sources, including private companies such as the Mall of America. Other fusion centers exist under the jurisdiction of various MN and Minneapolis governmental agencies, but largely fly under the radar due to a lack of transparency.

In his 2022 budget proposal, Gov. Tim Walz has allocated $4 million, followed by $2.27 million annually, to build out the Minnesota Fusion Center, under the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, into a 24-hour/365-days-a-year operation.3

Where did it all go wrong?
After their post-9/11 inception, fusion centers quickly found that there was not enough “terrorism” being planned in the United States to sustain such a large and well-staffed network of centers. Rather than scale back, many fusion centers have broadened their mission to address “unlawful activity” in general or even, sometimes, “pre-unlawful activity” including making “Anti-American Statements.” This troubling scope creep can consist of public-private partnerships, such as Target’s SafeZone surveillance system in downtown Minneapolis4, itself part of a larger national partnership of funding and collaboration5.

At the Mall of America, in particular, SARs became an excuse for racial profiling: “From the more than 1,000 pages of suspicious activity reports examined, the documents suggest almost two-thirds of the “suspicious” people whom the Mall reported to local police were minorities. Compare that with the U.S. population, which is more than 70 percent white. And whites account for 85 percent of the population in Minnesota.”6

Robert Sykora, who helped draft privacy rules for MNJAC, resigned Nov 2011 from the fusion center’s advisory group after expressing concerns about the direction the fusion center was taking, particularly around surreptitious records.7

Why should you be worried about fusion centers?
The lack of consequences and oversight for fusion centers that violate the Constitution, especially in Minnesota’s own recent history, is troubling. Secrecy, drifting scope, unclear lines of authority, and ambiguous chains of command make it unlikely for fusion centers ever to punish officers for overstepping their Constitutional bounds in terms of what information to collect, retain and share.

In Gov. Walz’s proposal for the Minnesota Fusion Center, the responsibility for information privacy issues falls on a single Privacy Officer8 (instead of the advisory committee used by MNJAC), with little public transparency into legal compliance.

Fusion centers collect data from a variety of sources, most notably social media. Recently, local journalists and activists realized that Minneapolis Police Department’s Strategic Information Center (SIC) was using “sock-puppet” social media accounts in order to monitor local activists and gather intelligence about local protests and plan police responses.9 During 2020, fusion centers—including the Minnesota Fusion Center—exaggerated threats and descriptions of suspicious behaviors in reports to law enforcement agencies, stoking fears and setting the stage for Minneapolis police’s widely-condemned overuse of “tear gas, concussion grenades, and rubber bullets, sometimes fired at close range”.10

The implication is that law enforcement officers at fusion centers believe 1st Amendment rights, including that of free speech and protest, to be inherently suspicious11, and are okay with low-quality, opaque information gathering that results in loss of life and property due to overzealous, militarized police response.

Recommendations
After the events of 2020 and 2021, there is undoubtedly political pressure to increase spending on surveillance and police departments. But considering fusion centers’ and other federal programs documented lack of effectiveness, lack of public accountability, and their willingness to wield new tools such as artificial intelligence and face recognition irresponsibly and far beyond their traditional counterterrorism mission,11 we find Gov. Walz’s plan to fund the Minnesota Fusion Center into a round-the-clock operation to be premature and dangerous. Claiming that their capabilities will be directed at “domestic terrorism” is a smokescreen for their past and future use in racial profiling, particularly against BIPOC and marginalized communities.

We call on MN lawmakers to do to the following

  • No increased funding for fusion centers.
  • The practices and effectiveness of existing fusion centers must be quantified, audited, and publicly accountable on an annual basis. In particular:
    • regular auditing by the legislature to ensure that there is a documented reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is taking place before information is collected or disseminated.
    • All non-governmental partners and pipelines should be publicly disclosed and explicitly made subject to the MN Data practices Act.
  • Limits should be placed on the sources, tools and technologies used by fusion centers, and local communities should play a significant and meaningful role in determining how surveillance systems and technologies fed into fusion centers are acquired and used.

References
1 Schulz, G.W. “What’s the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center?”, MinnPost, 1 Sep. 2009.
2 Olson, Dan. “Fusion centers protect us, but at what cost?”, MPR News, 16 Dec. 2008.
3 Mannix, Andy. “To thwart domestic terror threat, Walz wants to increase funding for little-known investigative unit”, Star Tribune, 2 Mar. 2021.
4 Sirdar, Marjaan. “Policing and Punishment in Minneapolis’ ‘SafeZone’”, Unicorn Riot, 28 Jan. 2021.
5 @stoplapdspying (Stop LAPD Spying Coalition). “We recently found emails between @Target executives and @LAPDChiefMoore from last summer. They’re part of Target’s long history of working closely with police forces across the country. Thread:” 22 Mar. 2021.
6 Zwerdling, Daniel, et al. “Mall Counterterrorism Files ID Mostly Minorities”, NPR, 8 Sep. 2011.
7 Yuen, Laura. “Open-government advocate resigns from fusion center panel”, MPR News, 30 Nov. 2011.
8 Minnesota Fusion Center Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties (P/CRCL) Policy, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, 4 Mar. 2021.
9 Neef, Andrew. “Police Fusion Center Tied to Fake Social Media Accounts”, Unicorn Riot, 4 Jun. 2019.
10 Hvistendahl, Mara, and Alleen Brown. “Law Enforcement Scoured Protester Communications and Exaggerated Threats to Minneapolis Cops, Leaked Documents Show”, The Intercept, 26 Jun. 2020.
11 “The Cost of Fear: Long-Cited Abuses Persist at U.S. Government-Funded Post-9/11 Fusion Centers.” Open The Government, 7 Oct. 2020.