have emerged in recent years: a fusion center run by the Dallas Police Department and a law enforcement-only system assembled by the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The latter system has aspirations to serve the whole state. The Collin County center tends to exaggerate the scope of its mission to justify funding, the sources say. “Kelley likes to think he’s supporting umpteen different agencies in the region,” says one of the sources. Still, there is evidence that the North Texas Fusion System has a wide dragnet. “Unstructured data is acquired through the open internet, open source, emails, websites and blogs,” reads one recent grant proposal. The March document also lists sources such as e-mail from crime analysts, cause-of-death sheets, suspicious-activity reports, and emergency-response plans. County Judge Keith Self, a career Army officer with experience in high-tech information warfare, confirmed that the county jail is recording telephone calls and feeding them to the fusion system, which employs software that transcribes every word of conversations, more than 6,600 hours each year. The software, which cost $130,000, according to public records, can also translate foreign languages into English, though it’s not clear that component is operational yet. The conversations are entered into the database, allowing them to be searched along with all the other information in the system. The purpose is to detect crimes being plotted or recruitment into “Islamic gangs:’ according to an article in Texas County Progress, a statewide magazine for county officials. Free-ranging conversations can be misinterpreted, and innocent people inadvertently linked to suspected criminal activity or even terrorism, critics suggest. A benign conversation, for example, about a terrorist attack in the news could be misconstrued as plotting. Moreover, translation of languagesespecially when automatedis notoriously difficult. Small errors in the spelling of a name could lead to an innocent person being fingered. And if mistakes aren’t purged from the system, the same error can be repeated and compounded many times over. “The old adage from the early day of computing was garbage in, garbage out:’ says German, the former FBI agent. “You start mixing reliable information with unreliable, and it makes the whole system unreliable:’ The Collin County center’s tenet is, “the more data, the bettee a data-mining truism. “There is a natural human tendency to summarize, filter, or limit date states a recent center document. “This is not a healthy approach for a Fusion System, however, because the key piece of data that solves a crime or identifies an imminent terrorist attack is likely to be in the data that is discarded.” The center approach rests on the belief that signs of a coming attackcalled “pre-incident indicators”can be detected by pumping huge quantities of data, from scurrilous blogs to carefully vetted police reports, into a database and then sifting through the undifferentiated mess for clues and patterns. The practice is typically called predictive data mining and was condemned by a committee of the National Research Council in October as “neither feasible as an objective nor desirable as a goal.” Fred Cate, a member of the committee and director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, points out that data mining has been used for years by marketers to match products with potential customers. But this targeted marketing only works because data miners have plowed through hundreds of thousands of transactions to locate a connection between, say, age and ownership of big-screen TVs. “That doesn’t work when fighting terrorism,” says Cate, “because thankfully we don’t have many terrorist incidents. We don’t have a million incidents to extract from; we have a dozen!” In a January bulletin, the center listed some of the behavioral clues it considers important in identifying terrorists, including suicide bombers. Among them: ownership of heavy vehicles, sweating and mumbling, inappropriate attire, interest in cameras, and paying in cashall of which could, of course, describe a big night on the town in Dallas. According to fusion system documents, the North Texas center’s database is accessible to almost 1,000 userscops, fire marshals, health officials, first responders, and Homiland Security person nelthrough a secure Web portal. The primary feature is a single-line query tool that allows users to search across the entire universe of information using key wordsa person’s name, a location, a vehicle description. Bob Johnson has also developed tools that allow users to visualize links between seemingly disparate pieces of information and project them onto a map. The recent grant proposal hints that the fusion system is looking into ways to diagram social networks, highlighting the myriad connections among individuals in much the same way that MySpace or Facebook does. Kelley Stone, the security director in Collin County, prefers to emphasize narrow law-enforcement applications. He cites a case in which a constable used the database to track down a wanted child molester. “A lot of success stories like that!’ Stone says. “The average citizen thinks [the police] have access to all this information, but the fact of the matter is you’re real limited until you have a system like this:’ The fusion system is a way, Stone says, of overcoming the “stovepiping” problem, the tendency of police departments to hoard valuable criminal information and not share it across jurisdictional boundaries. That sort of use is hardly what worries critics, who see the fusion center’s activities as both ineffectual and potentially dangerous. “What’s their authority for gathering information off the Internet?” asks German. “Are we devoting law-enforcement resources to gathering information off the Internet every day? To what end? Now does anyone who posts something on the Internet have to worry that they’re being run through a datamining program? It’s a 1984 version of America that doesn’t even make sense from a security standpoint.” 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 3, 2009
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