Blog of Rights

Sounding "Suspicious": Making Sure the FBI Protects Americans AND Our Liberties

By Nusrat Choudhury, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program at 2:12pm

Today we filed a lawsuit to enforce a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking the government for information about a nationwide FBI system called eGuardian, which is used to collect and share so-called "Suspicious Activity Reports" (SARs) about people from local, state and federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Today we filed a lawsuit to enforce a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking the government for information about a nationwide FBI system called eGuardian, which is used to collect and share so-called "Suspicious Activity Reports" (SARs) about people from local, state and federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The government has been using eGuardian since January 2009 to compile data on thousands of Americans, and the ACLU wants to know how this system works, and what safeguards are in place to make sure that the constitutional rights of innocent people are protected.

So what's "suspicious activity?" Based on the vague and broad definitions used in past SAR programs, it could be such innocuous and commonplace activities as using binoculars, taking pictures or video, drawing diagrams and taking notes. SAR programs like eGuardian open the door to racial profiling and other improper police practices precisely because they give police unwarranted discretion to stop people who are not reasonably suspected of wrongdoing and to collect their private information for massive government databases.

And that's not the only problem. We also don't know what the government does with the information it collects about innocent people through SARs. The FBI didn't respond to our request under the Freedom of Information Act for information about how long SARs are retained in eGuardian and what protections ensure that SARs conveying information about peoples' religion, race, ethnicity, or constitutionally protected activities aren't misused when making decisions on whom to target in the future.

This is troubling because so many SARs involve people who aren't reasonably suspected of wrongdoing. As of December 2010, two years after eGuardian was launched, 7,197 SARs were submitted to the system—of which only 103 led to criminal investigations. We don't know whether the FBI entered the other 7,094 SARs into eGuardian anyway, how long the data will be stored, or how it has been shared with other government agencies. Our lawsuit seeks this information so we can know if the FBI is storing, using and disseminating an ocean of information about innocent people in ways that violate the Constitution and privacy laws.

Our concerns about eGuardian are based on the government's history of improper and unconstitutional data collection about innocent people. In 2007, we found out that the Pentagon had been collecting reports of "suspicious activity" near military bases for its TALON database system, a precursor to eGuardian. TALON turned out to include information about people involved in innocent and constitutionally protected activity, such as anti-war meetings and protests. The program was shut down after the abuses came to light, but the data was transferred to FBI databases, where it likely still resides.

Against the backdrop of ever-expanding government surveillance—like yesterday's revelations about the NYPD's operations in Muslim communities—our eGuardian lawsuit is part of the ACLU's ongoing effort to make sure that the government is playing by the rules when it collects and shares information about Americans.

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