The following was authored by Dan Neumann and originally published in the Maine Beacon. It is reprinted here with permission.

 

Ahead of the first public internal audit by the embattled police anti-terrorism agency, the Maine Information Analysis Center (MIAC), a group of grassroots advocates released a report on Friday highlighting the many unanswered questions about the scope of the shadowy agency’s surveillance activities, including its efforts to target vulnerable Mainers.

The authors of “MIAC Shadow Report,” including University of Southern Maine criminology professor Brendan McQuade, say they wanted to highlight what the public knows — and doesn’t — about the agency, anticipating that MIAC’s first public report on its activities likely won’t yield any meaningful oversight.

MIAC is part of the Department of Homeland Security’s network of state-run “fusion centers” created after 9/11 to gather and disseminate intelligence to law enforcement and private-sector clients about potential terrorist threats.

The authors say among the most concerning questions they have about MIAC is the full extent and scope of the MIAC’s surveillance capabilities, as well as the potential harm it causes to the vulnerable populations the fusion center most frequently targets — people who use drugs, people with mental illnesses and unhoused people.

“The term ‘shadow report’ isn’t ours. It comes from reporting related to United Nation treaty obligations, where civil society organizations will release reports that supplement official reporting from governments,” explained McQuade.

McQuade is the author of the 2019 book, “Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision,” which documents the rise of fusion centers as part of the mass surveillance infrastructure.

“We hope to renew interest in MIAC and raise the issue for people concerned about privacy and for people who would like to see a public health approach to substance use disorder,” he said.

Maine lawmakers nearly closed the fusion center last year, but chose transparency instead

In May 2020, MIAC came under fire after Maine State Trooper George Loder filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging the fusion center violated privacy laws, maintained an illegal database of gun owners, and monitored youth groups and environmentalists.

A month later, amid the George Floyd uprisings against police violence, a nationwide hack of police data revealed that MIAC had closely monitored peaceful racial justice protests and produced sometimes spurious “situational awareness reports” gleaned from unfounded rumors spread on right-wing online platforms. Those reports were distributed to police departments and the center’s corporate partners, including Central Maine Power and Bath Iron Works.

The mass protests of 2020 put increased scrutiny on fusion centers across the country and efforts are currently underway to defund or take legal action against centers in Boston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Oregon.

In 2021, Maine went further than any other state had ever gone through a legislative effort to close a fusion center with a bipartisan bill that passed the Maine House but died in the Senate.

The increased criticism of MIAC did however result in a narrower bill passing that same year. LD 12 required the Maine Department of Public Safety (DPS) to present an annual report on MIAC to the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

The shadow report is an unofficial supplement to DPS’ report, say the the authors, who include McQuade, social worker Chris Cushing, privacy advocate Michael LeComte, Maine law student Mark Sayre and monitoring, evaluation and learning specialist Maxine Secskas.

The shadow report is sponsored by a coalition of Maine-based and national advocacy groups including the Church of Safe Injection, the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Maine Democratic Socialists of America, Maine Youth Justice, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Muslim Justice League.

McQuade says the report is also intended to keep the public focused on MIAC.

“I think getting the support we had in the House was impressive, but I wanted to keep the fight going,” he said. “I still think that MIAC is vulnerable.”

MIAC has access to private databases that violates its privacy policy

The advocates don’t believe the DPS’ forthcoming report to lawmakers will significantly increase the public’s knowledge of the inner workings of MIAC beyond what was glimpsed from the whistleblower suit and the hack in 2020.

The report describes the reporting requirements as “fundamentally flawed.”

“The DPS report is an exercise in self-policing by the MIAC’s Advisory Board, a body mostly composed of MIAC personnel,” the report reads. “Even if the privacy audit were conducted by an independent body, the scope of the process would be too narrow to address the concerns raised in 2020. It only audits a random selection of MIAC documents.”

The DPS audit will not go any further than the data produced and shared by MIAC. Among the missing pieces of information, according to the shadow report authors, is what surveillance technologies the fusion center employs.

This is concerning to the researchers because many private data brokers can collect vast amounts of information on bankruptcies, liens, properties, corporate affiliations and other personal information that would violate the fusion center’s own privacy policies by allowing it to acquire information that it cannot legally acquire by itself.

The authors have found evidence through public record requests that MIAC uses such commercial databases as part of its investigations. One heavily redacted record obtained by the researchers shows that MIAC used the American consumer credit reporting agency TransUnion to gather information on one individual, providing them access to information on their jobs, emails, usernames, aliases, and numerous social media profiles and internet sites.

The 2020 hack also revealed that MIAC used the Israeli digital intelligence company Cellebrite to access encrypted data from a cell phone.

“This is information that you can’t get without a warrant and MIAC has access to that,” McQuade said. “MIAC’s privacy policy expressly prohibits them from gathering information that is not related to a criminal investigation, and it seems like using a private data broker obliterates that.”

Counterterrorism has morphed into ‘supercharged’ policing of drug, property crimes

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Maine State Police official photo.

Just as concerning to the authors of the shadow report as the potential privacy violations are the unknown harms to the people who are the focus of much of the center’s intelligence sharing, mainly people involved in low-level drug and property crimes.

One-third of the intelligence reports produced or disseminated by MIAC concern drugs, the report states. And 14 of the 15 most downloaded documents of the fusion center concern property crime.

The report explains that the bulk of the work of fusion centers that were born under the “War on Terror” is now being waged in the failed “War on Drugs.” This is because there is too little activity that is clearly terrorism related, so fusion centers, to justify their budgets, have been redirected to be supplements to law enforcement.

“The United States became the global leader in incarceration by treating all social problems as issues for the cops and courts,” the report reads. “The MIAC, and other fusion centers, are part of this process. Fusion centers are the nerve system of mass criminalization.”

McQuade elaborated on the report’s conclusion that fusion centers have “supercharged policing.”

“The government poured millions, by some counts billions of dollars, into fusion centers in the name of counterterrorism. But terrorism is an exceedingly remote phenomenon,” he told Beacon. “So, you give police money and access to all these databases and fancy software and data analysts and what are they going to do? They’re going to do what police traditionally do, which is police conventional crimes. It just adds another layer of institutional structure on this monstrous apparatus for managing social problems through the cops and courts.”

The human impacts of this form of intelligence-driven policing are unmeasured and need to be brought out into the light, the shadow report’s authors say. They documented individuals who were the subject of leaked intelligence reports, including harm reduction advocate and founder of the Church of Safe Injection Jesse Harvey, who died of an overdose in 2020. The researchers talked to Harvey’s friends who believe police surveillance and relapses during the pandemic contributed to the activist’s death.

The reports also document the case of Joshua Hussey, who had violated a restraining order filed by his ex-girlfriend after he vandalized her home and car. A MIAC report described Hussey as a known runner from police saying that he had made numerous statements to family and friends that he intended to commit suicide by cop. Despite this intelligence, the Maine State Police sent a tactical team at 2 a.m. to apprehend Hussey, who shot himself during the confrontation.

“He’s not a sympathetic offender but I don’t think that needed to happen,” McQuade said. “I would like to see as part of investigation a thorough follow up on what happens to these people with mental illness, with chronic illnesses, with suicidal thoughts, who end up being part of an indiscriminate MIAC dragnet. Do they end up in better circumstances? Or do they end up like Joshua Hussey?”

‘This is public-private surveillance’

The shadow report ends on a series of unanswered questions that authors would like lawmakers to ask of fusion center leadership. But the authors concede that for them and the report’s sponsors the issue is already settled — MIAC should be defunded.

To McQuade, fusion centers represent an unnerving — and sometimes comically inept — evolution of the militarization of policing. Just as police have used sonic crowd control weapons developed in U.S. wars abroad against protesters in American cities, intelligence sharing infrastructure developed for counterterrorism is now being deployed to protect private property in the post-industrial mill towns of Lewiston-Auburn.

Another anecdote detailed in the report is that the Auburn Mall is a client of MIAC and receives intelligence reports. The mall is adjacent to the four highest poverty census tracts in the state, the report notes, and mall security mostly read MIAC reports on people who have been arrested for opioid use or shoplifting.

“On the one hand, they’re Big Brother. On the other hand, it’s ‘Reno 911’ or ‘The Keystone Cops,’” McQuade said, referencing reporting on the 2020 hack by Mainer that found, among other things, that MIAC credulously shared a report on a satirical website, “protestjobs.com,” warning police that protesters were being paid by unknown sources to cause violence.

“It’s not just about MIAC, it’s about the way state and corporate powers use the massive amounts of data that we produce just as a matter of course, just living our lives to make our lives visible and legible to institutional actors,” he continued, explaining that in addition to MIAC being hacked in 2020, the New England Organized Retail Crime Alliance, which shares data on shoplifters, was also hacked. The breach showed the alliance shares and receives information from fusion centers.

“This is public-private surveillance,” McQuade said. “Our personal information is used to make profits, but it’s also used to govern us and we didn’t have a conversation about that. It was not a public debate. It was decided in corporate boardrooms and among security agencies. And I don’t think people want that.”

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Dan Neumann

Dan studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North's interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago's West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan(at)mainebeacon.com.