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Should S.C. pay for surveillance?

Posted: February 21, 2014 11:47 a.m.
Updated: February 24, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s executive budget grabbed a few headlines for its items on education, transportation and Medicaid waiver programs. One component of the budget was almost completely ignored, however, and it shouldn’t be. The governor’s proposed spending plan includes $8.5 million in total funds -- $5.3 million from the federal government -- for a Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Fusion Center.

The state budget has funded fusion centers before. Taxpayers should therefore have some idea of what they are -- and why many consider them a threat to individual liberty.

Fusion centers, created originally in 2006, are part of the larger homeland security umbrella. Their stated purpose is to facilitate the gathering and sharing of intelligence or “threat related” information between the federal government and state and local law enforcement. Recent leaks about national intelligence organizations have shown stunning overreach and invasion of privacy on the federal level. These revelations have received a good deal of media attention as they well should, but other new information on the abuses of more local surveillance have received far less coverage.

A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice has highlighted the use of police department counterterrorism programs to “collect and share intelligence information about the everyday activities of law-abiding Americans, even in the absence of reasonable suspicion.”

While all fusion centers receive federal funds, they receive only loose guidelines on what information is worth sharing and collecting, and they receive little to no federal regulation. The absence of guidelines and an apparent lack of actual terrorist plots, the report contends, have led some fusion centers to collect information on citizens doing perfectly legal and ordinary things. People who’ve stayed at bus or train stops for long periods, who’ve held long phone conversations, or joggers who’ve spent a long time stretching -- all have been subject to surveillance.

The federal government’s own reports have also expressed concern over the activities of fusion centers. A 2012 Senate subcommittee report found that fusion centers often forwarded intelligence of “shoddy” quality. The report also found that the activities of fusion centers sometimes endangered citizen’s civil liberties, and that the information gathered by the centers was most often unrelated to terrorism.

Many are rightly outraged by federal agencies collecting data on average Americans.

But it’s worth asking: What kind of surveillance and data collection is going on at the local level? Neither the federal government nor South Carolina should be spending funds to monitor and report on the activities of law-abiding Americans.

(Shane McNamee is a policy analyst at the S.C. Policy Council. The S.C. News Exchange provided this op-ed to the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)

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