Spying on peace and environmental activists. An illegal database of gun owners. Violations of privacy laws. Punishing a whistleblower. These are allegations from Maine State Trooper George Loder about the Maine Information and Analysis Center, Maine’s node in the National Network of Fusion Centers, recognized by the Department of Homeland Security. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine quickly demanded an investigation.

The state Legislature should both act now and recognize the full scope of issues raised by these allegations. Investigating the Maine Information and Analysis Center – or, better, police surveillance in general – would be a good start but not enough. This scandal is an opportunity to confront the systems of mass surveillance embedded in our digitally mediated lives.

Loder’s allegations highlight some problems that are particular to fusion centers. As task forces, fusion centers have muddled command hierarchies. While municipal or state police most often manage fusion centers, their staff come from different agencies from all levels of government. Hence, Loder, a state trooper, had competing demands from his FBI supervisor at the Joint Terrorism Task Force, where he was assigned, and his State Police supervisor at the fusion center, where he was expected to liaise.

In these situations, lines of authority, the mission and the relevant laws are unclear, allowing fusion centers to “policy shop” or pick “from overlapping sets of laws” to avoid “privacy laws, open-records acts, and civil liability.” Since there is no meaningful oversight of fusion centers, “policy shopping” can easily drift toward systemic illegality. It is no wonder, then, that Loder alleges that the Maine Information and Analysis Center collected and retained information on dubious grounds.

These concerns with civil liberties, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Fusion centers are part of a larger transformation in the management of complex organizations and the governing of populations. We live under mass surveillance. It’s not just the federal intelligence community or law enforcement. The core issue is how the state and private powers – the government and big corporations – use data to steer fates in subtle yet profound ways.

The average person now produces six newspapers worth of information daily. That’s nearly a 200-fold increase from the 1980s, when we produced just 2½ newspaper pages of data each day. All that information is used for administration. Cops and spies may be the masters of “intelligence fusion,” but advertisers, insurers, banks, credit card companies and many others all practice their own forms of “data fusion.” They crunch our data and sort us into different categories for their purposes. What’s more, it’s all secret. Intelligence and data fusion render our lives legible to state and private powers, but we don’t know exactly how or to what ends. Nor do we appreciate the broader implications.

In my research, for example, I found that fusion centers played unacknowledged role in decarceration, the 9 percent drop in state and federal prison populations from some 1.6 million in 2010 to 1.4 million in 2018. In many jurisdictions, fusion centers pull together police, community supervision, the courts and other government and private sector entities together in a series of aggressive police operations to manage criminalized populations outside the prison. Fusion centers are mixed up in an ongoing shift from mass incarceration to mass supervision. We’re replacing prisons with police surveillance and reducing prison populations without addressing the underlying social problems that made the United States the world’s top jailer.

My conclusions were drawn from extensive research in New York and New Jersey. They may not hold for Maine. However, legislators should heed a more basic point: “Information societies” are always and also surveillance societies. For too long, we’ve left these matters to the experts – often for the sake of security, convenience or efficiency. In the process, we’ve let others decide how our data will be used.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We should applaud the efforts of Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell,  to question officials about the Maine Information and Analysis Center, but we need further action. We need to address mass surveillance and take popular control of the information infrastructures that shape our lives.

Comments are not available on this story.