'See Something, Say Something' Campaign Creates Massive Database Of Useless Info From Citizens Spying On Each Other
from the the-government-is-the-worst-conspiracy-theorist dept
The ACLU's recent release of "Suspicious Activity Reports" from various California law enforcement agencies (working with DHS Fusion Centers) shows that the government has developed a strong culture of paranoia through its increasingly-broad anti-terrorism efforts. The catchphrase, "If you see something, say something," has resulted in plenty of seeing and saying, but has failed to turn up much in the way of usable counter-terrorism intelligence.
Much in the way that intelligence agencies like gathering data "just in case," the Fusion Centers are aided and abetted by law enforcement officials who are willing to add to the data piles by approaching anything "suspicious" (very broadly defined) as potentially terrorist-related. This state-approved paranoia has spilled over into the private sector as the documents detail several second-hand reports from concerned citizens.
In both cases (law enforcement and private individuals), much of the "suspicion" seems to be based solely on reported persons being (or appearing to be) Middle Eastern. This term shows up so often it's often simply abbreviated as ME. For instance, page 21 has a report of some "suspicious" photography occurring on a Metrolink train, involving two people, one dressed in a "'Middle Eastern' costume."
Speaking of photography, aiming a camera at any government building, power station, railroad track, bridge, dam, oil refinery, airport building or any other building that an observer feels should remain unphotographed is enough to get your description (at the very least) added to the FBI's e-Guardian database. Even filming on-duty cops can raise the "suspicions" of law enforcement [p. 10].
After responding to a call of disturbance aboard an MTA bus, a male white and a female white in a black Dodge Charger (newer model) video taping deputy personnel. When Sgt [redacted] attempted to contact the couple. they fled the scene and could not be located. The reason for the couple video taping is unknown.There's more. Photographers filming a manufacturing plant deemed suspicious until questioning discovered they were filming the pollution, not the plant [p. 28]. Five males "photographing a mannequin on a bus bench" -- weird, but not dangerous [p. 50]. Man filming Highway 101, allegedly for a "Stop the Violence" video not cited or bothered further [p. 64], but like many others, had his case kicked up the ladder to the "JTTF" (Joint Terrorism Task Force). A citizen filming officers serving a warrant across the street from his/her house and is duly noted in the database [p. 167]. Throughout the 300 pages of reports, almost everything involving cameras, law enforcement (or concerned citizens) and structures is either added to the FBI's database or handed over to the JTTF.
This is troubling, but it gets worse. A demonstration against law enforcement's use of excessive force makes its way into the database [p. 165]. An "overly assertive" person complaining about security measures at the Shasta Dam (son had pocketknife confiscated) received his/her own entry into the e-Guardian database [p. 280]. An officer reports a traffic stop dealing with a person who was "unstable and possibly had a fetish about police that could easily turn to becoming antipolice" [p. 235]. This too results in a database entry.
The 300+ pages detail vagaries and contains several statements given by the type of people who peer through the slats of their blinds all day long, one hand resting on the phone in case anything "suspicious" happens. When you portray terrorist activity as omnipresent, you're basically asking to be inundated with useless "tips" detailing with very subjectively suspicious activity and having to entertain the fantasies of bigots and busybodies.
On May 25,2012, at approximately 0710 hours, the RP was commuting on the Sacramento Regional Transit commuter train when she overheard two passengers reading from a book that may have contained references to terrorist information gathering and strategy. [p. 171]Dozens of low-quality tips like these pollute the report. An overheard question in a public restroom ("What jihad wouldn't want to kill Obama and get his 72 virgins?") [p. 223]. A "suspicious male" in possession of flight simulator software [p. 172]. A male taking photos of a feedlot [p. 173]. Someone goes down to the cop shop and shows an officer there how he/she can locate a "recipe" for rocket fuel at Make.com [p. 173]. "Suspicious" inquiry as to location of newly-built power plant (subject asks off-duty officer and another customer at gas station) [p. 203]. "Suspicious" but "cooperative" male "caught" taking pictures of the railroad [p. 211]. Person applying for a job at a prison leaves behind "suspicious" book called "Daily Reminder" filled with "arabic writing and phone numbers" [p.285].
Since December 17,2011, the Chico Police Department (CPD) has responded to the Chico, CA on three different occasions in apartment complex located at response to receiving reports of a resident yelling in his apartment and making derogatory statements towards the United States and the president. [p. 185]
On 09/14/2011 Sac RTAC/CCIC received an email stating that an individual, living in New York, New York, may be here in the United States illegally. The complainant also stated that they do not know how the individual affords such a lavish lifestyle… [p. 213]
A private citizen observed two men, possibly of Middle Eastern decent [sic], at [redacted] gas station in Manteca, CA on 9/9/2011. The men were driving a vehicle with New York State plates. The citizen is aware of the current terrorist threat to NY... [p. 214]
Suspicious ME [Middle Eastern] Males Buy Several Large Pallets of Water [p. 270]
Much of what doesn't detail useless bias projections or photographer harassment deals with theft. Lots and lots of theft. Some is troubling, like the disappearance of hundreds of pounds of fertilizer or dozens of propane tanks. (Then again, fertilizer is expensive and both products do have some resale value rather than only being valuable as bomb ingredients.) More troubling (at least to reporting officers and their supervisors) is the number of reports of weapon and uniform theft from official vehicles and buildings. Several reports of copper wiring disappearing from power stations and industrial sites also feature in the reports, suggesting there's something more nefarious afoot than the obvious, non-terroristic conclusion: an easily unloaded metal with a decent going rate.
Going beyond all of the mostly useless stuff lies the truly bizarre.
Student Found in Possession of Notebook Containing Radical WritingsAnd then there's this. Unfortunately, the responding agency chose to use screenshots rather than delivering the entire report, so we'll never know where this was headed., but the opening partial paragraph is certainly intriguing.
On May 12, 2012, a Roseville Police Department officer working in the capacity of a School Resource Officer observed the partial quote "the blood of tyrants" on a woodshop project… [p. 171]
On 12 February 2012 at 0800, a UC Davis PD officer took a vandalism report at Emerson Hall Dorm, 1st floor men's restroom of anti-government graffiti written in black marker on the wall signed by the moniker name of [redacted] with a circle around the "E." [p. 191]
On 11/21/2011, an anonymous female called the CCIC to report possible illegal selling of controlled substance, Oxycotton [sic]. The caller is associated with the subject [redacted] attempting to sell oxycotton [sic] on his [redacted] page… [p. 202]
On 28 October 2011, Sacramento Police Department officers found two sets of anti-religious graffiti on a wall of the [redacted] The first set of graffiti, in black spray paint, was of 2 upside down crosses with a pentagram in the middle of [report ends]. [p. 206] (Halloween much?)
On Saturday October 29th, A CHP Special Investigations Officer was off duty in a parking lot of a [redacted] in South Sacramento. He saw a parked custom Chopper style M/C that was chromed out with high handle bars in good shape. With his training and e[xpertise? ...] [p. 205]With the exception of the erstwhile "Oxycotton" dealer, every one of these clearly non-terrorist activities ended up in the e-Guardian database.
Sure, there's some potentially useful counter-terrorism info in this collection, but the problem is that it makes up for a small subset of the data gathered. Not for nothing did a recent Congressional investigation tear into the DHS and its Fusion Centers for producing and acquiring such low-quality intelligence. According to the report, the centers have done little more than waste money and trample on civil liberties in the pursuit of hundreds of useless "leads."
As the ACLU points out, the system itself has been skewed towards collecting garbage for quite some time, thanks to the involved agencies' own efforts to expand the scope of their mission.
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 only upshot is that the involved definitions are in the process of being refined, along with the Functional Standard itself -- the inevitable result of major government entities (including the Senate's Homeland Security subcommittee) calling out a program as being completely useless. No one likes losing a budget line, so there's bound to be some improvement. However, any positives must be weighed against the FBI's tendency to declare nearly everything "relevant" to a terrorist investigation. To help guide this process towards something more useful and less damaging to the public, the ACLU is urging everyone to join its campaign to push the agencies to work towards smarter intelligence gathering, rather than simply gathering more data.