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5 Innocuous Activities That Can Get You Put in the Govt.'s Anti-Terrorism Database

5 U.S. citizens say they were put into a counter terrorism database for harmless activities like photographing landmarks.

Photo Credit: Katherine Welles


SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Five California men sued the Department of Justice, claiming they were entered into a counterterrorism database for innocent activities such as a professional photographer taking pictures, a computer consultant buying computers at Best Buy, and in one case, waiting for one's mother at a train station.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus on behalf of lead plaintiff Wiley Gill et al., challenges the Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR) database, which flags people with potential connections to terrorism.

The men, all U.S. citizens, say they were put into the database for innocuous activities such as photographing landmarks, or viewing a website about videos in his own home.

One says his "suspicious activity" was "standing outside a restroom at a train station while waiting for his mother."

The reports are part of the National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, in which the federal government encourages state and local law enforcement agencies to collect and report information that may be connected to terrorism. The reports are maintained in various counterterrorism databases and disseminated to law enforcement agencies across the country, according to the complaint.

"An individual who is reported in a SAR is flagged as a person with a potential nexus to terrorism and automatically falls under law enforcement scrutiny which may include intrusive questioning by local or federal law enforcement agents. Even when the Federal Bureau of Investigation concludes that the person did not have any nexus to terrorism, a SAR can haunt that individual for decades, as SARs remain in federal databases for up to 30 years," the complaint states.

The Department of Justice and the Program Manager of the Information Sharing Environment, both named as defendants, specify what kind of information should be reported in the databases, as well as what types of behavior should be reported as suspicious.

"These behavioral categories range from the constitutionally protected (photographing infrastructure) to the absurd ('acting suspiciously')," the complaint states.

The five plaintiffs say they came under scrutiny despite doing nothing wrong.

James Prigoff, an 86-year-old internationally renowned photographer of public art, was in Boston in 2004 taking pictures of a famous piece of art called the "Rainbow Swash" when he was asked by private security guards to stop. Because of that incident, FBI agents showed up at his home several months later to question him about his activities in Boston. They also questioned one of his neighbors, according to the lawsuit.

"All I was doing was taking pictures in a public place, and now I'm apparently in a government terrorism database for decades," Prigoff said in a statement issued by the ACLU.

"This is supposed to be a free country, where the government isn't supposed to be tracking you if you're not doing anything wrong. I lived through the McCarthy era, and I know how false accusations, surveillance, and keeping files on innocent people can destroy careers and lives. I am deeply troubled that the SAR program may be recreating that same climate of false accusation and fear today."

Gill, a custodian at a state university who converted to Islam while a student, had his name put in the database after being identified as a "Suspicious Male Subject in Possession of Flight Simulator Game," according to the lawsuit.

The report was filed after a search by the Chico Police Department in 2012. The report states that "Mr. Gill's computer displayed a screen titled something to the effect of 'Games that fly under the radar,' which appeared to be a 'flight simulator type of game.' The SAR concludes by describing Mr. Gill's 'full conversion to Islam as a young WMA [white, male adult],' 'pious demeanor,' and 'potential access to flight simulation via the internet' as 'worthy of note,'" the complaint states. (Brackets in complaint.)

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