Private companies operating in California are helping to fight the war on terror by handing over unknown information to law-enforcement authorities they believe could be evidence of a potential national security or general criminal threat.

That’s according to the sheriff of Los Angeles County, Leroy Baca, who testified before a congressional subcommittee Sept. 25 on police intelligence and information sharing between federal and local law-enforcement bureaucracies.

Baca helps lead the Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center, one of nearly 70 so-called “fusion centers” that were quickly established across the country after 9/11 and now exist in 49 states. Coordinators say the centers, subsidized with at least $380 million from the Department of Homeland Security, will help defeat the intelligence weaknesses regarded as having enabled the attacks in New York and Washington.

Privacy advocates, however, are skeptical that fusion centers have strong enough provisions in place to safeguard the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. The American Civil Liberties Union has published reports calling into question how deeply proponents of fusion centers and anti-terror collaboration want to pry into the private lives of everyday people in search of terrorists.

At many fusion centers the movement to promote information sharing has included encouraging private corporations that control large domestic assets like major energy producers and industrial manufacturers to participate by reporting tips when they see something considered suspicious.

“Through their large sphere of influence they provide thousands of eyes and ears via corporate security departments who have shared dozens of incidents of investigative interest to the JRIC,” Baca told the House Committee on Homeland Security.

An employee from the Boeing Company, a major contractor with the federal government, last year told the same House panel that the private sector should be given access to a breadth of government information “both classified and unclassified.” Boeing has an employee stationed at a fusion center in Seattle.

The ACLU warns that companies with access to sensitive government information could be compelled to use it for retaliating against critics, competitors or employees who try to blow the whistle on corporate misconduct. A report the group published in December says the FBI’s infamous 1970s-era counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO provoked private companies to harass or fire employees who were also outspoken political and social activists. Discovery of the program’s frequently illegal activities by later congressional probes led to new rules governing the conduct of agents at the bureau.

“While law enforcement officers undergo rigorous training, are sworn to serve their communities, and are paid public salaries, private companies and their employees are motivated to maximize profits,” the report reads. “Private companies could be used as proxies to conduct activities that the government would otherwise be prohibited from engaging in.”

Sheriff Baca created a Homeland Security Advisory Council after Sept. 11 comprised of “senior corporate leaders” in Los Angeles and Orange counties from which the terror leads given to authorities apparently came. Forty-five corporate executives are members of the council and the list includes current and former employees of Fox Broadcasting, Southern California energy giant Edison International, media conglomerate Viacom, a Disney corporate security vice president (and former FBI agent), the head of American Correctional Solutions, a privatization company that contracts with government agencies to provide medical care to prison inmates, top real-estate developers, Hollywood entertainment companies and major banking interests. Alongside them on the council are past local, state and federal government officials including one-time Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan and a former U.S. judge.

“Creating links ahead of time and building the private sector into the existing government structure creates new capabilities that enhance our community’s ability to prevent, respond to, and recover from a disaster,” the council’s website reads.

As for California fusion centers, there are now three others located in Sacramento, San Diego, and San Francisco in addition to the one in Los Angeles. But they’re far less visible to citizens than any standard local police station, and they place a greater emphasis on conducting domestic spying by sifting through large volumes of often disparate information in search of patterns—a practice known as data mining—as opposed to investigating a crime after it occurs.

The first center in California was established two weeks after Sept. 11 by former Gov. Gray Davis, and among other things, it creates regular intelligence bulletins and special reports on individual groups containing background information and “violence potential,” according to a Government Accountability Report from last fall.

The concept of information fusion represents a trend that swept law enforcement in the United States after Sept. 11 in which authorities collect domestic intelligence using an array of sources to pre-empt both national security threats and more common criminal acts like fraud, drug trafficking and gang violence.

The centers are designed to host multiple state and federal law-enforcement groups from the FBI and immigration authorities to state prison guards and local police personnel where they can exchange information housed in secure criminal databases or mine other banks of information such as credit reports and insurance claims.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.