Friday, October 1, 2010

U.S. "Suspicious Activity" Database Going Live With Not Much Discussion Or Scrutiny

In my last post I said I would describe how "function creep" from the police facial recognition photograph scans from the G20 could spill into other more ominous activity. Read the Following:

[U.S.] "Federal officials are closer to establishing what amounts to a nationwide database of so-called “suspicious activity reports” that describe possible evidence of terrorist attack planning. Reports will be submitted not just by state and local police and agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, but also private corporations that control economic and infrastructure assets considered high-profile targets for terrorists."

"A senior homeland security official, John Cohen, told Elevated Risk in an interview that investigators and analysts would be able to view the reports through a read-only portal made up of numerous repositories rather than a single database, allowing those who create the records to maintain control over them.

Cohen stressed that authorized users of the system are instructed on how to distinguish between behavior that warrants scrutiny and lawful conduct that doesn’t justify attention from the government. He added that users would need a legitimate reason for searching the reports, and they would have to document the justification.

“It’s not illegal to take pictures of a monument,” he said. “What you want to do is provide training on how terrorist organizations plan and operate and the tactics they use.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is nonetheless critical of the initiative’s premise. Guidelines for the program show that up to 30 points of potentially sensitive identifying data could end up in a report, things like your driver’s license or passport information, employee ID, date of birth and social security number. According to the ACLU:

[Suspicious activity] programs increase the probability that innocent people will be stopped by police and have their personal information collected for inclusion in law enforcement and intelligence databases. They also open the door to racial profiling and other improper police practices by giving police unwarranted discretion to stop people who are not reasonably suspected of wrongdoing."

"But perhaps the best known example of an activity treated with skepticism by police post-9/11 is snapping images of sites regarded as sensitive, from airstrips and chemical manufacturing facilities to metro train stations and large shopping malls. A photographer in Miami runs an entire blog dedicated to tales of harassment artists and photojournalists have endured by police and private security.

Amtrak guards infamously handcuffed a man in 2008 for refusing to delete images he’d taken from a public train platform at New York City’s Penn Station. It turned out he was competing in a photo contest organized by Amtrak itself called “Picture Our Trains.” JetBlue told a passenger that taking photos inside an airliner was prohibited, despite the company’s own contest encouraging travelers to capture images while in-flight.

More recently, local police and BP security guards in Texas City, Texas, aggressively questioned a freelance photojournalist named Lance Rosenfield working on assignment for the investigative nonprofit ProPublica. Rosenfield says he hardly had time to capture images of a public sign situated near BP’s Texas City refinery before his car was blocked in at a gas station.

“I did intend to take pictures of the refinery, but I never got to that point,” Rosenfield told Elevated Risk. They demanded to see his photos and eventually concluded that the images didn’t represent a terrorist threat. But his name, driver’s license, date of birth and social security number were all documented anyway."

"Federal authorities piloted a suspicious activity program in several states and issued findings earlier this year. They showed that of more than 5,700 reports compiled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, only a dozen met the standard Washington is promising to enforce for inclusion in the nationwide portal. In Virginia, only seven of nearly 350 met the standard. " [my bold - JMB]


Center For Investigative Reporting - Database of suspicious activity going live with little attention

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And we're all supposed to not worry that regular activity will be targetted? Especially by private corporations that are being required to particpate under these laws and regulations? Are corporations being deputised to harrass legitimate protestors and public advocates?

I wonder what will happen when environmental activists get too close to toxin emitting industrial facilities...

When will Canada get its own corollary law - and when will we start getting arrested when we get too close to the tar sands?

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