States quietly buy, mine personal data -- including names of your associates and relatives
John Byrne
Published: Wednesday April 2, 2008

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The government is rounding up your cell phone numbers, insurance claims, credit reports, financial records, and the names of your associates and relatives and sharing them with law enforcement officials nationwide.

They may even have your unlisted iPhone number.

But it's not President George W. Bush, who's taken fire over his warrantless wiretapping program, or the National Security Agency, which oversaw the interception of Americans' calls overseas.

It's your state.

So-called "fusion centers" set up after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks collect, store and analyze commercial and public data on unknown millions of Americans. Little is known about the centers, though they received $254 million from the Department of Homeland Security between 2004 and 2007.

Documents obtained by the Washington Post's Robert O'Harrow Jr. for Wednesday's papers reveal that the centers -- which have flown beneath the public's radar -- have information that now includes unlisted cell phone numbers, insurance claims, driver's license photographs, credit reports and even top-secret data systems at the CIA.

"Dozens of the organizations known as fusion centers were created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to identify potential threats and improve the way information is shared," O'Harrow says. "The centers use law enforcement analysts and sophisticated computer systems to compile, or fuse, disparate tips and clues and pass along the refined information to other agencies. They are expected to play important roles in national information-sharing networks that link local, state and federal authorities and enable them to automatically sift their storehouses of records for patterns and clues."

A document obtained by the paper lists "resources" used by fusion centers in the Northeastern United States.

The paper notes that "details have come to light at a time of debate about domestic intelligence efforts... and whether the government has enough protections to prevent abuses," suggesting they were leaked to influence the debate. Congress has refused to pass legislation granting telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for participating in what many critics believe was illegal wiretapping.

The fusion centers also have subscriptions to information systems that provide information on Americans' locations, fiancial holdings, associates, relatives and firearms licenses.

"Pennsylvania buys credit reports and uses face-recognition software to examine driver's license photos, while analysts in Rhode Island have access to car-rental databases," O'Harrow writes. "In Maryland, authorities rely on a little-known data broker called Entersect, which claims it maintains 12 billion records about 98 percent of Americans."

Entersect boasts that it holds records for the private cellphone numbers of Americans.

"There is never ever enough information when it comes to terrorism" remarked Maj. Steven G. O'Donnell, deputy superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police, in a comment to O'Harrow. "That's what post-9/11 is about."

Massachusetts taps an information broker to get access to unlisted cell and landline phone numbers and another to get access to information on insurance claims, casualty claims and property claims. Ohio has access to an FBI 'secret level repository,' O'Harrow said. Rhode Island, meanwhile, can query CIA databases.

"Officials at the Rhode Island State Police, FBI and CIA declined to discuss the system and the kinds of information it contains," Harrow wrote.