The Future of Security Lies Beneath the City of Brotherly Love

By Aaron Shapiro

I have seen the center of Philadelphia’s optic nervous system. Officially, it is called the Watch Center, but the officers and civilian crime analysts who operate before its massive eight-screen monitor from a stadium-tiered help also call it “the bubble.” Every surveillance camera to which the City of Philadelphia has access is hardwired to the bubble. With over 3,000 cameras, it is the command center for a vast optic network, a metropolitan-scaled, closed-circuit televisual apparatus.

The bubble is the crown of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Real-Time Crime Center (RTCC), which is itself situated within a larger law enforcement office complex called the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center (DVIC). In February, a group of students from visiting scholar Lisa Parks’ Surveillance Cultures seminar (COMM 896) took a tour of the facility – only the second civilian group to visit the site since it opened in 2012.


The “bubble” at the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center

Housed in an old U.S. Army production facility in South Philadelphia, where tanks and hand-sewn American flags were churned out during World War II, the DVIC is Philadelphia’s first State and Major Urban Area Fusion Center, which means that it contains a cross-section of our federated governments’ law enforcement arms in a single, freshly minted space. With the exception of the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) that provides a secured communicative space and a direct line to officials in Washington, D.C., the entirety of the DVIC – its offices and conference rooms as well as the bubble – is lined by glass windows to provide an internal, interagency and jurisdictional transparency. The municipal, state, and federal law enforcement officers who share the office run into one another at the coffee machine or water cooler, or coming and going from the restroom. Their proximity is meant to enhance efficiency in interagency cooperation and communication. Where there are fewer walls, the logic goes, people share more information.

The National Network of Fusion Centers is an initiative of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The first Fusion Center opened in 2005 in New York City and, in less than a decade, scores more have opened. They are the physical corollary to interagency and multi-tiered efforts, like High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area teams, for instance, which bring together law enforcement officers from various departments and jurisdictions to monitor and report on regional trends in narcotics trade, or the multi-jurisdictional, FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which are commissioned to investigate individuals on the “thresholds established in accordance with the Attorney General Guidelines for Domestic FBI operations.”

The proliferation of Fusion Centers in cities across the U.S. is a direct response to the failure of federal agencies to have prevented the attacks of 9/11. The lack of interagency communication, generally referred to as “siloing,” was blamed. The mandate now, as outlined in the Obama Administration’s 2010 National Security Strategy Report, is for system integration: information sharing and joint data analysis. “Fusion centers provide a mechanism through which the federal government, SLTT [State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial law enforcement agencies], and private sector partners come together to accomplish this purpose.”

Students from COMM 896 outside the DVIC. The author, Aaron Shapiro, is at far left.

The mandate for system integration permits data – in this case, predominately visual data from the surveillance camera network – to be shared more easily across the various department and agencies that are housed within the DVIC. But this raises serious political concerns that can be shrouded discourses of transparency. As David Lyon explains, system integration “always militates against the principles of fair information handling,” which are seen “to create friction in the system, slowing down disparate record linkages and refusing access to certain data.” The prioritization of interagency and jurisdictional cooperation, which is the raison d’être of Fusion Centers, has the potential to erode privacy restrictions since there are fewer and fewer limits on the types of data that can be gathered and how it can be shared. To what extent, in other words, does internal transparency come at the cost of external transparency? How does cooperation between law enforcement agencies and jurisdictions reconfigure surveillance and state power?

As responsible researchers we need to address such questions. Our charge is to unpack the relationships between technologically-mediated surveillance, the shifting spatial and organizational arrangements of the State, and new distributions of power, and to do so while recognizing both the necessity and ambivalence of surveillance in the post-9/11 world.

Aaron Shapiro is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication.

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