May 13, 2014
By Yaman Salahi, National Security & Civil Rights Staff Attorney
Tech companies have had a testy relationship with San Francisco this year on issues ranging from gentrification to public transit. But it still comes as a surprise that Twitter will be lending its downtown offices to San Francisco’s local “fusion center” this Wednesday, May 14, for an event geared at improving the image of various government surveillance and intelligence programs.
Coming almost a year after Edward Snowden’s disclosures inaugurated unprecedented concern about privacy, the event, dubbed “Building Communities of Trust,” is organized by San Francisco’s Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), one of six “fusion centers” in California where the FBI works with police and sheriff’s departments to monitor, investigate, collect and share intelligence information purportedly connected to terrorism.
Representatives from federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are expected to attend the meeting at Twitter, along with representatives from Bay Area police and sheriff’s departments. San Francisco Police Department is officially co-hosting it, and a number of community and civil rights groups are attending.
The San Francisco fusion center, NCRIC, is responsible for managing at least two controversial intelligence programs: Suspicious Activity Reporting (commonly known as “see something, say something”) and Automatic License Plate Readers.
Civil rights organizations have long criticized both of these programs for violating our privacy rights and, in the case of Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR), keeping intelligence records of constitutionally protected activities, like photography and political dissent, when there is no reason to think that any criminal activity is underway. They’re not alone in criticizing this program. A Senate subcommittee report from October 2012 described the program as “often flawed, unrelated to terrorism,” and identified “dozens of problematic or useless” reports “potentially violating civil liberties protections.”
Records of these programs bear witness to these critiques. Last October the ACLU of Northern California and Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus publicized1700 “Suspicious Activity Reports” collected by fusion centers in Los Angeles and Sacramento.
NCRIC, San Francisco’s fusion center, refused to release any on law enforcement investigation grounds—a disturbing lack of transparency considering that the reports obtained elsewhere in California by the ACLU and Advancing Justice-ALC reveal a pattern of racial profiling and Islamophobia.
For example, although the “See Something, Say Something” program is billed as essential to counter-terrorism, the reports include gems like the following:
– “two middle eastern looking males taking photographs of Folsom Dam”
– “Yemeni brothers apply to be volunteer firefighters in Kings County”
– “trending information passed to Citrus Heights Dispatcher from Citrus Heights LEO that there has been a substantial increase in the presence of female Muslims fully dressed in veils/burkas”
– “Sgt. [redacted] has long been concerned about a residence in his neighborhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly”
No one wants to live in a San Francisco where citizens are treated as suspicious because they look Muslim, or, in fusion center parlance, like “suspected Male Middle Easterns.”
NCRIC’s refusal to release any SARs is not only disconcerting, given how bad SARs in other parts of California turned out to be, but it’s also ironic, considering its central role in organizing the “Building Communities of Trust” events.
If NCRIC is committed to building trust, why does it continue to refuse to be more transparent about its SAR program by releasing them to the public, like the other fusion centers?
San Francisco Police Department, which has full-time staff tasked to work at the fusion center, should be especially sensitive to the community’s concerns around this issue after the passage of the Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance, which requires that SFPD officers working with another federal government project—the Joint Terrorism Task Force—follow local laws that are more protective of civil rights and liberties.
This isn’t the first time Big Tech has partnered up with Big Brother here in the Bay Area. NCRIC’s last BCOT meeting took place at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park in fall 2013. It seems as though fusion centers are making a concerted effort to partner up with tech giants, a troubling prospect considering the ongoing lack of transparency and meaningful privacy safeguards.
If NCRIC actually wants to “build communities of trust,” it should at the very least publish its SAR reports, and, ultimately, put an end to overbroad surveillance programs that have the effect of criminalizing marginalized communities while failing to make anyone safer.
Related: NPR online – ACLU Posts Fed-Collected ‘Suspicious’ Activity Reports Online
ACLU of Northern California Blog – The Government is Spying on You: ACLU Releases New Evidence of Overly Broad Surveillance of Everyday Activities