CHARLESTON, W. Va. (March 1, 2023) – A bill passed by the West Virginia House would increase oversight of the state’s fusion center and require detailed reporting on its activities. Enactment of the law would increase the transparency of surveillance activities in the state and could set the stage for future reforms.
Rep. Chris Phillips (R) and a coalition of nine Republican cosponsors introduced House Bill 3562 (HB3562) on Feb. 25. The legislation would create a Joint Fusion Center Oversight Committee to oversee the activities of the West Virginia Fusion Center, replacing the legislative oversight committee that oversees it under current law. The new oversight committee would feature a wider range of expertise and have expanded access to fusion center activities.
The proposed law would also require the fusion center to supply a detailed annual written report including both privacy audits performed in the prior year and de-identified information from those audits regarding the cases, crimes, incidents and reports on which the West Virginia Fusion Center worked during the prior year that were reviewed during the audits. It would also be required to submit a description of any and all funding sources or other streams of income, received by or on behalf of the Fusion during the reporting period, and include therein, the source, purpose, amount and current disposition of said funds, derived from any source other than the annual Budget of the State of West Virginia.
Under current law, the Fusion Center is limited to specific investigatory powers. HB3562 would clarify restrictions on the center’s operation and add criminal penalties for any person found guilty of operating outside of those parameters.
On Feb. 25, the House Government Organization Committee gave HB3562 a do-pass recommendation. Today, the full House passed the bill by a vote of 92-0.
As the Department of Homeland Security describes them, “Fusion Centers are state-owned and operated centers that serve as focal points in states and major urban areas for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information between State, Local, Tribal and Territorial (SLTT), federal and private sector partners.”
In practice, fusion centers serve as clearinghouses where state, local and federal law enforcement agencies gather and share massive amounts of private information gathered through various surveillance networks including automatic license plate readers, facial recognition technology, stingray devices, surveillance cameras and more.
Fusion centers operate under a veil of secrecy. The passage of HB3562 would increase transparency and give West Virginians a better understanding of how surveillance is being conducted and used in the state. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. It could also set the stage to limit data sharing and rein in the ever-growing national surveillance state, as transparency often creates the momentum needed to drive future change.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL PROGRAMS
It has become standard practice for law enforcement agencies to upload warrantless surveillance data gathered at the state level. As already noted, fusion centers serve as clearinghouses for all kinds of information shared between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The DHS helps fund and supports 79 fusion centers across the U.S. The DHS describes homeland security intelligence/information fusion as the ”…process of managing the flow of information to support the rapid identification of emerging terrorism-related threats requiring intervention by government and private-sector authorities.”
Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”
Fusion centers operate within a broader federal system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.
Fusion centers serve as a vital cog in the rapidly expanding national surveillance state. Limiting their operation and data sharing is crucial to reining in surveillance. Passage of this bill would take a small first step in that direction.
HB3562 moves to the Senate for further consideration.