Across the USA, a new program of neighborhood spying is being implemented.
Take Los Angeles. The LAPD has something called Special Order 1 (SO 1).
SO 1 enables LAPD officers to file Suspicious Activity Reports on observed behaviors or activities. Where things get murky, however, is how SAR guidelines categorize constitutionally protected, non-criminal and commonplace activities such as using binoculars, snapping photographs and taking notes as indicators of terrorism-related activity. The SARs are coupled with the LAPD’s iWatch program, a campaign the police pioneered to encourage regular citizens to report “suspicious” activity, including “a person wearing clothes that are too big or too hot for the weather,” or things that just plain old don’t “look right.”
Far from being merely a local phenomenon, the standardized program that the LAPD developed in 2008 served as the lead model for a National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative. “Success” stories from the LAPD’s program are used in national training material, and the LAPD touts it as “the first program in the U.S. to create a national standard” for terrorism-related procedures.
According to the Information Sharing Environment, the nationwide SAR initiative “establishes a standardized process whereby SAR information can be shared among agencies to help detect and prevent terrorism-related criminal activity.” Personal data that is collected on these individuals is treated as criminal intelligence. The rapidly expanding and dangerously intrusive network houses personal data on thousands of Americans.
As a counter-terrorism initiative, the SAR program is already in place in major cities like Boston, Miami and Seattle, and is in the process of being rolled out across the nation by September of this year. The Los Angeles model gives citizens in other places an idea of what they can expect. Between 2008 and 2010, the LAPD shared 2,668 SARs with the local fusion center, which only uploaded 2 percent of them to the database — meaning that the majority of the reports did not have a reasonable indication of criminal activity. Though only a fraction were used by the fusion center, the LAPD retained the remaining 98 percent of its SARs in intelligence files, even though they did not serve as evidence of crime.
The system is not working. Yet it’s very expensive.
According to an independent analysis conducted by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions in April 2011, analysts “also expressed a desire to obtain feedback on SARs reported to federal agencies on whether the SARs did, in fact, constitute genuine threats; such feedback reportedly occurs rarely, if ever.” The report also found that the majority of thwarted terrorism plots came from investigations into criminal activity as opposed to intelligence gathering. “They’ve created this expensive, and resource-intensive system that has a huge impact on innocent people’s privacy,” said German. “And yet there is no science showing that this is an effective way of going about law enforcement or intelligence gathering.”