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).
Some of the "suscpious activity" reported to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force included professional photographers, paparazzi, and Asian tourists photographing buildings, the Los Angeles skyline, and other facilities. Many of the reports were submitted to eGuardian, a program used by law enforcement agencies to sift through the reports. The FBI's website says the program "is designed to be used by federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies and the Department of Defense. Participating agencies are able to provide, view, and analyze SAR and other terrorism-related information."
Some of the suspicious activities the ACLUNC included in its blog post are:
- "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."
The ACLUNC wrote: "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 reviewing a year of similar intelligence reporting from the state and local authorities identified 'dozens of problematic or useless' reports 'potentially violating civil liberties protections.'"
Although the Nationwide SAR Initiative (NSI) training says not to consider someone suspicious based on their race or nationality, that didn't stop many reports being submitted mainly because the "suspicious" person was "middle eastern."
One report, from a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officer, described four middle eastern males "taking pictures of downtown skyline." The person that investigated that report found that the vehicle was registered to a person in Tennessee. "A check on the name in all databases revealed no hits," the investigator wrote. "I am closing this lead due to no further workable information."
If you believe you are the subject of one of the reports, the ACLU of Northern California asks you to call them at 415-621-2488. The reports can be viewed here.