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Homeland Security Encourages Americans to Spy and Report on Their Neighbors

The federal government's new anti-terrorism program promotes spying and incites fear among ordinary citizens.

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There is a privacy risk that records containing [personally identifiable information, e.g. birthdates] collected under the SAR initiative will be deemed to not qualify as suspicious activities after further investigation and analysis but will be retained in the system.

Much of the contact police have with the public is governed by legal concepts like “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” that require evidence of a crime. Suspicious activity isn’t a new legal phenomenon, but it has created a new, potentially vast stream of intelligence and sensitive personal information for the government to collect without absolute clarity about what should be considered genuinely suspicious.

By Jan. 3, Congressional Quarterly had decided that “unexpected opposition” was growing due to criticism that the federal government’s suspicious activity program “promotes spying and incites fear.” “Backlash,” as the headline described it, is probably an overstatement. Few Americans are even aware of the program’s breadth to begin with, but the Washington news service did point to online reaction over Napolitano’s video appearance at hundreds of Walmart stores.

There are other nagging questions in the meantime. Florida generated thousands of suspicious activity reports for a pilot program, but how many of them could confidently be linked to terrorism or crime? A Los Angeles police commander told Congress in 2009 that of 1,400 reports there, four led to arrests with no indication of whether they were connected to terror. Will data systems and intelligence analysts become overwhelmed by the deluge of new and not-always-reliable information? For now, Uncle Sam and his sister want you to keep an eye out.

G.W. Schulz, a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting, has been covering homeland security issues since 2008.

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