"Suspicious Activity" -- Really?

One of the war on terror's primary weapons is known as a SAR -- Suspicious Activity Report. Local police fill one out if they come across something questionable related to homeland security or terrorism.

Tell us what you think constitutes "suspicious activity"

Defining "Suspicious Activity"

A few examples:

  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "official documentation of observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity [related to terrorism]"
  • Texas Homeland Security Department
    • · "Suspicious or abandoned packages, luggage or mail in a crowded place, such as an airport, office building or shopping center"
    • · "Someone showing unusual interest in utilities, government buildings, historic buildings or similar infrastructure. Pay particular attention to someone photographing, videotaping, inquiring about security, drawing diagrams or making notes about such facilities."
    • · "Strange odors coming from a house or building"
  • Los Angeles Police Department
    • · "Individuals who stay at bus or train stops for extended periods while buses and trains come and go"
    • · "Individuals who carry on long conversations on pay or cellular telephones"
    • · "Individuals who order food at a restaurant and leave before the food arrives or who order without eating"
    • · "Joggers who stand and stretch for an inordinate amount of time"
  • Kentucky Office of Homeland Security
    • · Unusual request for information, such as "a telephone request at work asking about the security system" or "questions about the habits of your chief executive officer"
    • · Unusual activity, such as "people avoiding eye contact," "an overloaded vehicle," "people in places they don't belong," or being "over dressed for the weather"
    • · Numerous visitors, such as "arriving and leaving at unusual hours" or "an unusual number of unrelated people living together"
    • · Large/Unusual/High-Risk deliveries, such as "unusual deliveries of chemicals or fertilizer" or "unusual or unexpected mail"
  • Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (PDF)
    • · "Drivers who operate the vehicle in an overly cautious manner, attempt to abandon the vehicle or act nervously"
    • · Suicide bomber indicators include individuals "who display excessive sweating, mumbling to oneself or displaying an unusually calm or detached demeanor"
  • "If You See Something, Say Something" This public service announcement produced by the Department of Homeland Security was rolled out in December 2010 and plays at checkout lines at 588 Wal-Marts in 27 states. The campaign was initially developed by New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but has been adopted and expanded by DHS.

How Local Police Can Get Into Trouble

Law enforcement has always relied on citizen tips to detect and prevent criminal acts. After 9/11, the federal government worked to systematize local efforts to collect terrorism-related tips and "connect the dots" in a program known as the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI).

But critics, such as ACLU policy counsel Michael German -- a former undercover FBI agent -- argue that the imperative to gather as much information as possible, with relatively vague guidance, can lead to abuses.

He cites a Maryland case, where 53 activists primarily affiliated with anti-death penalty, environmental, racial justice and anti-war groups -- including several Catholic nuns -- were the subjects of an elaborate 14-month covert surveillance program by the Maryland State Police.

The data gathered made its way into the Maryland High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Database (HIDTA), which at that point also included terrorism intelligence, and ultimately to a database in Washington that made it accessible to state and federal officials. "These weren't groups that anybody had any reasonable suspicion were actually engaged in criminal activity," German tells FRONTLINE. "And yet not only were they being spied on and having their information collected for these intelligence databases, but they were actually being mischaracterized as terrorists." A later review (PDF) by the Maryland Attorney General found the state police "intruded upon the ability of law-abiding Marylanders to associate and express themselves freely" and "violated federal regulations" by including the information in the HIDTA database.

Am I in a Federal Database?

You can find out by filing a FOIA request for your record. Send a written request to:

The Privacy Office
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
245 Murray Drive SW, STOP-0550
Washington, DC 20528-0550

Requests should include a "description of the records sought, the requester's full name, current address, and the date and place of birth" and must be "signed and either notarized or submitted under penalty of perjury."

It's highly unlikely you'll get answers, however. As the DHS's November 2010 Privacy Impact Assessment for the Suspicious Reporting Initiative (PDF) explains, SAR-related records "are exempt from the access and correction provisions of the Privacy Act."

The Privacy Impact Assessment does outline some of the ways in which the federal government is trying to protect civil liberties and privacy. All agencies participating in the National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative must have a "written privacy, civil rights and civil liberties policy" and information on the SAR server is supposed to be purged after five years, unless the information is "re-validate[d]." DHS is also training SAR users to input "contextual data concerning the source of the information to help assess the quality and reliability of each [record]."



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Posted January 18, 2011

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