Secret ‘Fusion Centers’ and the Search for the Next School Shooter

Policy and Government

Secret ‘Fusion Centers’ and the Search for the Next School Shooter

By Jenny Abamu     Jul 11, 2018

Secret ‘Fusion Centers’ and the Search for the Next School Shooter
Public mailing address for fusion center in Fairfax, V.A., leads to this building. Officials say actual building location is undisclosed.

It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it is not.

Since 2001, the Federal government has provided state and local law enforcement agencies with grants, training and other forms of assistance to create a national network of so-called “fusion centers”—buildings in locations not disclosed to the public where government officials gather, process and disseminate information about terrorism, homeland security and criminal justice on a daily basis.

Oh, and they’re highly secretive.

The idea sprung up after the September 11th terrorist attacks when Americans seemed more open to ceding particular privacy rights in the name of public safety. The concept alone may seem a little troubling to privacy advocates, but it takes on a more dystopian bent in its intersection with school safety.

During the 2017-18 school year, there were more than 23 school shootings, putting both federal and local officials on high alert as they entered into a continuous and heated debate about the best way to respond. While some—including the President—have called for arming teachers, and others for stricter gun control laws, another swath of leaders are calling for increased, high-tech surveillance of students—reflecting something that may sound eerily similar to the 2002 Steven Spielberg film, Minority Report, where a specialized law enforcement unit apprehends criminals before they commit crimes based on pre-knowledge provided by psychics.

But for fusion centers, finding the next school shooter before it happens doesn’t involve futuristic mediums. Rather, they are digging through social media and other more ambiguous forms of data to predict and apprehend students who could potentially become threats in the future, and the work may be spreading. This past May, Texas Governor Greg Abbott called for the creation of more fusion centers as part of a school safety plan specifically to monitor student social media accounts for possible threats.

Fusion center officials say that they have seen some success in using predictive information to apprehend people who pose possible threats to schools, telling EdSurge that their work has kept “students safe and provide[d] first responders with greater insight.” Also in May, local media reports from Corpus Christi, Tex., told the story of three students who were arrested after fusion center officers found a video of them ranting on Instagram about a plan to shoot their peers in a Texas high school.

But the data local officials act on—sometimes collected by algorithms that scan social media for keywords like ‘kill’ and ‘bomb’—have a risk of misidentifying students as threats. People note these words often appear in slang phrases such as ‘I killed that test’ or ‘these shoes are the bomb.’ Some privacy advocates fear it may disproportionately target vulnerable student populations, such as minorities and those with disabilities, who are already known to be subject to harsher school discipline policies than their peers. In June, Oregonian reporter Bethany Barnes chronicled the unfortunate experience of an autistic high school student who eventually dropped out after constant surveillance and questioning from law enforcement officials who believed they had sufficient data to suspect he could be a school shooter—a traumatizing experience for the teen and his family.

These mishaps are something that privacy and civil rights advocates are afraid may become more common as the use of fusion centers increases. Back in June, Amelia Vance, the director for education policy at the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF), spoke at a Federal Commission on School Safety session about the harmful impacts such surveillance can have on students. Although she acknowledged that schools must monitor students in order to help them, she also highlighted the adverse effects of intense observation, such as the creation of permanent records and increased feelings of insecurity, which can follow them into adulthood

“The school safety plan from Texas proposes combining local state and federal resources to scan and analyze not only public social media post but also private or direct messages and information exchanged in private chat groups, or via text message,” Vance told the commission.

The state safety proposal notes that current social media surveillance activities, outside of fusion centers, cannot access private content. EdSurge reached out to law enforcement in Texas to confirm whether or not officials could access private messages at fusion centers, but in response, officials did not address the question directly. They only noted that “the Intelligence Center allows [the Austin Independent School District Police Department] to tap into information from across the region necessary to fully investigate any tips.” Vance and other privacy experts, however, contend that language within the proposal suggests a desire to use fusion centers to access private information.

“To be clear,” Vance continues, “we are talking about the government actively seeking out children’s social media accounts, both public and private, and combining this information with existing law enforcement or social services records to profile which students are threats... Privacy guardrails must be drawn so parents and students can be sure their rights are protected.”

In the past, the American Civil Liberties Union has also railed against the expansion and use of fusion centers, noting that the ambiguous lines of authority, military and private sector participation, as well as data mining and excessive secrecy, pose a threat to domestic civil liberties. They cite examples such as a 2009 Virginia Fusion Center terrorism threat assessment (that appears to have been removed) where state universities and colleges are described as "nodes for radicalization" and which characterized the "diversity" surrounding a Virginia military base and the state's "historically black" colleges as possible threats.

Do Fusion Centers Violate Students’ Legal Right to Privacy?

As the next Federal Commission on School Safety gets underway today, privacy experts plan to testify and offer policy recommendations to legislators that they believe can both support school safety and protect student privacy rights. Examining the legal ramifications of the use of fusion centers to promote school safety, part of the testimony is expected to focus on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a law that restricts the type of student information that can be shared with parties outside schools and offers parents and students the right to view information concerning them.

The 2008 FERPA law, which privacy advocates have been trying to get Congress to strengthen for years, currently has a provision that allows for the sharing of private student information with parties outside of schools in the event of “health and safety” emergencies. However, how schools define emergencies is ambiguous, and as the different types of law enforcement groups expand through the creation of mediums like fusion centers, who the information can be shared with also appears to be growing more unclear.

As government officials draft school safety policies, they will need to consult privacy laws such as FERPA to make sure these new rules do not violate existing law. But there is some apprehension among privacy advocates that Congress may ultimately end up revising FERPA, weakening the law in the name of school safety.

“FERPA is designed to protect student privacy and student safety, not foil appropriate law enforcement investigations or endanger schools,” reads part of the testimony from Future of Privacy Forum’s John Verdi, obtained by EdSurge. “A dramatic broadening of authority could increase sharing of student information in a way that overwhelms administrators with data, casts suspicion on students who show no signs of violent behavior, and fails to promptly identify individuals who pose genuine threats to school safety.”

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