The Government is Spying on You: ACLU Releases New Evidence of Overly Broad Surveillance of Everyday Activities

This was originally posted by the ACLU of Northern California.

For years, we at the ACLU have been warning that the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative – a vast information sharing program that encourages the collection and sharing of "suspicious activity" among private parties and local, state and federal law enforcement – would lead to violations of our privacy, racial and religious profiling, and interference with constitutionally-protected activities. Today, we're proving ourselves right by unveiling actual Suspicious Activity Report summaries obtained from California fusion centers (post-9/11 intergovernmental surveillance hubs). We are also joined by 26 other organizations in calling on the Justice Department, FBI and two other agencies responsible for Suspicious Activity Reporting to adopt stricter standards so that individuals' innocent activity will cease being reported, shared and maintained for decades in anti-terrorism databases.

Here are some examples of real Suspicious Activity Reports ("SARs") from the Central California Intelligence Center and the Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center we are making public today:

  • "Suspicious ME [Middle Eastern] Males Buy Several Large Pallets of Water"
  • "I was called out to the above address regarding a male who was taking photographs of the [name of facility blacked out] [in Commerce, California]. The male stated, he is an artist and enjoys photographing building[s] in industrial areas … [and] stated he is a professor at San Diego State private college, and takes the photos for his art class."
  • A sergeant from the Elk Grove Police Department reported "on a suspicious individual in his neighborhood"; the sergeant had "long been concerned about a residence in his neighborhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly"
  • "Demonstration Against Law Enforcement Use of Excessive Force": "Reporting party received an e-mail that describes a scheduled protest by an unknown number of individuals on July 7, 2012. The information indicates the protestors are concerned about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers."

Do these sound like suspicious activities reasonably indicative of a terrorist threat? Important leads our intelligence agencies should follow up on? We're not the only ones who don't think so. A Senate subcommittee reviewed a year of similar intelligence reporting from state and local authorities identified and "dozens of problematic or useless" reports "potentially violating civil liberties protections." A report, co-authored by Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michael Downing, found that SARs have "flooded fusion centers, law enforcement, and other security entities with white noise." Also, as the ACLU notes in a report released this week on post-9/11 FBI abuses, SARs generated from state and local police and public tips – many reflecting religious, racial, ethnic, and political bias – end up in federal counterterrorism databases. The documents from California confirm this.

So why are police submitting reports (sometimes received from community members, private security guards and via anonymous tips) about such innocuous conduct for inclusion in anti-terrorism databases? Because under the NSI and related programs, everyone – our neighbors, public employees, storekeepers – are encouraged to help. "If you see something, say something," says the Department of Homeland Security. The "Functional Standard" for Suspicious Activity Reporting defines "suspicious activity" to include many activities that are not only lawful, but protected by the First Amendment. Even worse, the FBI encourages fusion centers not to limit themselves to the Functional Standard and instead to report "all potentially terrorism-related activity." With such a broad and vague standard, no wonder we are seeing innocent activities reported as "suspicious," especially when they involve community groups against whom we still see significant governmental bias.

The good news? The agencies that run NSI are working on revising the Functional Standard, so now is the time to call on those agencies, including the Department of Justice and the FBI, to adopt stricter standards for suspicious activity reporting. They should agree that one standard exists for Suspicious Activity Reporting, that reports must be supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and that constitutionally protected activities like photography and videography be eliminated from the list of inherently suspicious activities.The letter we are submitting today makes those demands. You can get more information and join the campaign to protect our privacy and constitutional rights and to demand smarter intelligence here.

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Anonymous

spying on people is like the predator stocking its prey.should you run and hide like an animal or find ways to stop the spying

Anonymous

How would an individual go about finding if they were on that list? If they have ever been on that list? If an individual feels they have been stalked by local or state Government entities, who would they report it to? There are still a lot of questions to be answered about what a citizens rights are when it comes to this "Spying on Americans" revelations.

Vicki Bee

Gee. It's too bad they didn't do all these things beFORE my daughter's dad was murdered. It sounds like they're basing current SAR's on every little detail they MISSED before 2001 and are now going CRAZY trying to overcompensate for what they can never bring back no matter how long they do it.
Believe me. I know how impossible it is to bring it back. There hasn't been a single day since it happened that I haven't wished it away or back into yesterday, even when I knew that all the wishing in the world would never bring him back here.

But I DO wonder why they didn't include it as suspicious activity when one of the terrorists took "how to take off" but NOT "how to land" a plane classes.
I was told that people actually ignored THAT one, which is way more suspicious than buying a pallet of water, for God's sake.

I don't know why they don't just admit they didn't see any of it and then go on with the life that THEY still get to blessed with having. All this overcompensation BS is exactly that, and no amount of doing it now will ever make up for NOT doing anything THEN. B/c they were too arrogant to believe that ANYbody could find a way around them and paid the price for it; or more accurately 3,000 families paid the price.
Now they're acting like everyone in the WORLD could outsmart our government.

No amount of doing this will ever bring them back.
I'm totally baffled by the behavior of our government.

Anonymous

Pat yourselves on the back all you want, but the ACLU is seriously failing on this issue, among others. Reporting isn't enough. The guardian and many other outlets have that covered. Get to work.

Anonymous

With the overall fact that the government does have the power to "watch" everyone and anyone, we as a society need to realize that if we aren't doing anything illegal, then we don't have anything to worry about. Governments’ looking into people's business is nothing new and the United States is probably one of the least intrusive Nations to do so, or at least the least intrusive to dictate what we do.

I'm glad that we now have a better, more recognized system in place to report suspicious activity. This reporting method provides law enforcement and other government agencies the tools to investigate various situations that they would not have had a clue about prior to the reporting.

As far as Vicki Bee's comments about why the suspicious behavior of the terrorist activities related to 09/11 were not reported or stopped. It's because of the activities/actions of those individuals that addition laws, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, were implemented. These measures were put in place to ensure that all mandated reporters are actually reporting suspicious activity to prevent another terrorist attack. You can't complain about the government looking into things now, but then criticize them for not investigating suspicious activity prior to 09/11; what is that you exactly what? You want the government to be hands off, yet you want to feel safe at home with your family? You can't have it both ways.

I go back to my original statement, if you are not doing anything illegal, then sit back and let the government do their job.

Dimninbus

Report police engaging in suspect activities. You could start an endless loop.

Anonymous

Two separate censorship passes have been done on the document (Asset_upload_file262_12586.pdf).

The second pass is the one with blanked entries with (H), (P) or both on top of them.

The first pass removed identifying text during the printing process. For example, note that on page 44, a license place number related to a car has been omitted.

Because that first pass removed text before formatting and without notice, it calls the integrity and completeness of the document into further doubt.

Anonymous

Welcome to the United States of Oceania -_-

Catherine_2

This "neighbor turning in neighbor" mentality was popular with the Nazi's, too.

What's really mystifying about all this is just what the LA police chief noted -- everything is being flooded with noise. PRISM has to be the same. If you grab everything, how can you possibly hope to sift through all of it to find anything? Not only that but when you grab everything, what you do in effect, is make everyone guilty until proven innocent, and this country was not designed to work that way.

There is so much wrong with these mass information collection programs, that I barely know where to start. I'm an IT professional and for most of my career I've loved technology and believed it had the potential to change the world. I'm beginning to realize I was right -- it clearly has the power to destroy it. Just proves the old adage that anything in the wrong hands can become a weapon.

Anonymous

i think that we should report the NSA and FBI. They are conducting surveillance of Americans without our consent and various other nefarious things. if we all reported on it, then they would literally be chasing their tails.

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