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DHS to Launch SAR Database. In Suspicion and Surveillance We Trust?

Oct 01, 20106 mins
Data and Information SecurityEnterprise ApplicationsMicrosoft

Homeland Security will launch its suspicious activity report database to connect the dots. Citizens are encouraged to spy on and report suspicious activity of neighbors.

On October 12, DHS will implement its database of “suspicious activity reports” (SAR). SAR programs encourage intelligence and homeland security officials, law enforcement officers, emergency responders, and even the public to report “suspicious” activities of neighbors and strangers to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. According to the Center For Investigative Reporting, (CIR) “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.” This nationwide database will “connect the dots” in order to find terrorists who are conspiring to carry out an attack. The DHS reports will be overseen by the Justice Department.

The Nationwide SAR Initiative (NSI) states some of its successes such as, “The continued priority to safeguard the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of our nation’s residents (including the assurances that not only is information shared appropriately with authorized personnel but that the information that is exchanged is “quality” information).” According to NSI overview (pdf), tips will go through a vetting process by a fusion center.

The Washington Post’s Top Secret America found that about 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. They produce 50,000 reports a year – 136 a day.

How many more might be produced after DHS implements its SAR database?

ACLU said all these SARs reports “can yield only one outcome: an ocean of data about innocent individuals that will overwhelm the investigative resources of the authorities.” Furthermore, the ACLU reported, “Director Michael Leiter complained that the NCTC receives ‘literally thousands’ of pieces of intelligence every day. Adding innocuous information about the everyday activities of Americans will only increase this burden on intelligence resources.”

A senior homeland security official, John Cohen, stressed that “authorized users of the [SARs] system are instructed on how to distinguish between behavior that warrants scrutiny and lawful conduct that doesn’t justify attention from the government,” reported CIR. Cohen added, “Users would need a legitimate reason for searching the reports, and they would have to document the justification.”

Yet the same article pointed to federal findings in which only 12 of 5,700 suspicious activity reports compiled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement met the Washington standard for inclusion in the nationwide portal. In Virginia, only seven of 350 met the standard. An LAPD commander told Congress that of nearly 1,400 reports, only 50 were referred to a Joint Terrorism Task Force for follow-up and led to four arrests which were not specified as being terrorism-related.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and the federal government have pushed for greater suspicious activity reporting in recent months. CIR reported, the feds have “encouraged parking-lot attendants, shopping retailers, Amtrak employees and campers near the Canadian border to report suspicious people. Bridge workers in New York are also being trained to spot bad guys.”

Part of the mantra in the DHS Safety Advice for Retailers and Shoppers video is “There aren’t really suspicious people, only suspicious behavior.” But haven’t we seen peace groups targeted, and specific races profiled, even photographers flagged as being “suspicious” in the past?

The ACLU Spy Reports were filled with increased and unjust government spying. The ACLU wrote about SARs, “For all the potential impact on the rights and privacy of innocent people, there is little objective evidence that SAR programs are effective in identifying and interdicting acts of terrorism.”

Law enforcement and regular citizens are encouraged to report suspicious activity through such campaigns as See Something, Say Something. Despite assurances that all this reporting will not be done for innocuous and innocent behaviors, precursors, or “warning signs” of terrorism, have been put into public service announcements. Citizens are encouraged to report behaviors like note-taking, drawing, photography and collecting money for charity. The Terrorist Awareness guide lists one “heightened sense of concern” as “inappropriate photographs or videos.”

Would you report this as a precursor of terrorism? Kentwood, Michigan, population 45,255, has pictures of water towers on its city website. Yet when an amateur photographer engaged in his “nerdy” hobby and took a picture of a Kentwood water tower, some of the city’s utility workers must have decided he was planning a terrorist attack to poison the water supply. The utility officials harassed the photographer and then referred the incident to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, reported Grand Rapid News. The mayor of Kentwood said he “was proud of city workers for their diligence,” adding that “they responded appropriately.” The photographer, who has never been in trouble with the law, is worried that he may end up on a watch list and have trouble traveling.

I’m not saying that people should not report suspicious activity, but what is considered “reasonable suspicion”? The LAPD iWatch site lists behaviors and activities that you should report. There are eight signs of terrorism to look for according to Colorado Homeland Security.

This is a real iWatch video:

This one is an iWatch parody video by someone who is not a big fan (warning strong language).

Although the news has so far been rather quiet, the Homeland Security database of suspicious activity is about to go live and “connect the dots.” Homeland security officials have stressed their ability to “distinguish between behavior that warrants scrutiny and lawful conduct that doesn’t justify attention from the government.” There have been assurances at all levels that U.S. citizens need not worry about their privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. Do you feel reassured?

I hope we are not about to officially go live with the fear-mongering motto of “in suspicion we trust.”

Like this? Check out these other posts:

  • All of today’s Microsoft news and blogs
  • FBI Spied and Lied, Misled Justice Department on Improper Surveillance of Peace Groups
  • EFF Warns of Untrustworthy SSL, Undetectable Surveillance
  • Microsoft’s Davis on Privacy: Your Digital Life Data is Bankable Currency
  • ACLU Report: Spying on Free Speech Nearly At Cold War Level
  • Full-Body X-Ray Scanners Driving Down A Street Near You?
  • Facial recognition: Identifying faces in a crowd in real-time
  • Google Super Spy Eye-in-the-Sky: Total Information Awareness
  • Cyber-Warfare: U.S. Military Hackers and Spies Prepare to Knock the World Offline

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.