Congress hatched the idea of fusion centers in the aftermath of the Sept.11, 2011, terrorist attacks.
Federal money would go to local police departments to create the centers in large metropolitan areas. Those who worked at the centers would collect data and other information on suspected terrorists and suspected terrorist groups.
The idea was implemented in short order, but fusion centers have had little regulation and oversight. Because of that, their activities largely have gone unnoticed.
Last month, however, the Milwaukee Police Department’s Intelligence Fusion Center was in the news, and its activities are concerning.
Milwaukee is not a prime target for al-Qaida or other international terrorist organizations. Consequently, there is little in the way of terrorist activity to attract the MPD fusion center’s attention.
The center largely is opaque, and only select members of the department have access to it. Those who do, spend their time monitoring the citizens of Milwaukee, not suspected terrorists.
Surveillance is a traditional police tactic. But in the past, surveillance only took place when there was reasonable suspicion to believe crime was afoot.
Today’s world is much different.
The fusion center has begun placing microphones throughout the city of Milwaukee. Those microphones are ultrasensitive. When a shot is fired, a car backfires or a door slams, the microphones detect that sound and route it to the fusion center.
The microphones are so sensitive that they can pick up ordinary conversations between people talking in public.
Rapid advances in technology are threatening the fabric of the Fourth Amendment. Law enforcement can follow cars with GPS devices and track suspects through their cellphones. Police departments are buying drones that could be used to maintain permanent eyes in the sky.
If microphones are being installed throughout Milwaukee, it only will be a matter of time before cameras become ubiquitous.
The courts are the only real check on this obvious danger, an erosion of privacy under constant and perpetual government surveillance. Now more than ever, courts must tightly restrict the expanding tools that law enforcement seeks to embrace.
Judges would be wise to heed Benjamin Franklin’s warning that those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.