A man walks under the dome inside the State House in Augusta in February 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

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There have been plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC), even before a recent data breach of its website vendor exposed personal information in hundreds of records. A wave of much needed scruity from the public and from lawmakers in Augusta has followed a May BDN report on a lawsuit alleging that this law enforcement unit, known as a “fusion center,” had been illegally collecting personal data from Mainers.

While that case remains in the courts, lawmakers are wisely not waiting to take a closer look at the MIAC. On June 24, a few days before the data breach, members of the criminal justice and judiciary committees questioned Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck about the unit and its activities.

Sauschuck distinguished the unit’s collection of open source information, using publicly available avenues such as social media, from surveillance. He said the center was “not an investigative body” because it passes the information it gathers to other partner agencies that conduct the investigations, and instead described it as “armchair investigating.” At least in the court of public opinion, that is a distinction without a difference.

The MIAC was created by an executive order in 2006 from then-governor John Baldacci, with a mission “to ensure that Homeland Security intelligence information is appropriately shared between all Federal, State, County, Local, Tribal, and private sector partners…” Given the well-documented failures of information sharing ahead of the 9/11 attacks, that facilitation made sense and continues to make sense. But the unit’s activities have evolved over the years, to include monitoring motorcycle gangs and collecting information about peaceful protests like recent events surrounding racial justice, work that would seem to go far beyond the MIAC’s original mission centered around homeland security intelligence.

In the legislative hearing and in an interview with the BDN, Sauschuck stressed that information gathering in relation to First Amendment events like protests centers around public safety — including for the event participants.

“This is what we need to do to make sure we have enough staffing to make sure that people are safe,” Sauschuck told lawmakers.

At the very least, more explicit language should be added to the 44-page MIAC privacy policy to give the public confidence that any such information gathering about people exercising their First Amendment rights will be done to protect event participants and the general public, not target them — and that there are sufficient oversight mechanisms in place to ensure that existing protections are followed.

The role and structure of MIAC’s advisory board is another area that deserves legislative scrutiny. Despite recent restructuring, a question from Rep. Craig Hickman rightly pointed to the continued heavy representation of law enforcement on that board.

“Do you believe that law enforcement officers are the best people to oversee potential law enforcement abuses?” Hickman asked Sauschuck during the June hearing.

At a minimum, the Legislature needs to step in with changes to MIAC policies, security and board representation to ensure stronger, more explicit guardrails are in place to protect the rights and personal information of the public. And short of a more detailed justification from the Maine Department of Public Safety, lawmakers should be taking a hard look at whether this unit is worth its roughly $800,000 price tag ($100,000 of which is federal funding).

Some legislators clearly have no hesitation about undertaking that cost-benefit analysis.

“If you’re a data collection organization and you can’t protect your data, I think you’re probably not worth Maine taxpayers’ money,” Rep. Charlotte Warren, the House Chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said after the data breach.

Despite productive conversations with Sauschuck and MIAC Director Lt. Michael Johnston, and the recognition that this is not some top-secret bunker or completely unregulated agency, we remain unconvinced that Maine people are getting a good or clear return on their investment here. We do, however, see the value of an organization that promotes information sharing across different law enforcement agencies, and wonder if MIAC’s responsibilities and budget can be pared back and refocused, moving away from activities like “armchair investigating.”

Maybe that is an overly simplistic view that comes from our position as armchair opinionators. But given the lingering questions about the scope of the center’s work, budget pressures of COVID-19 and the national conversation about rethinking how different levels of government structure and invest in law enforcement, rolling back this type of activity is an obvious and necessary place to look.