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ACLU Posts Fed-Collected 'Suspicious' Activity Reports Online

Sep 19, 2013
Originally published on September 30, 2013 2:29 pm

With all the talk of spying by the National Security Agency, it's easy to forget the government engages in off-line surveillance, too. In the last few years, the feds have expanded efforts to collect tips about people's behavior in the real world; they're called suspicious activity reports.

Hal Bergman, a freelance photographer in Los Angeles, has a fondness for industrial scenes, bridges, ports and refineries.

"They're large and they're hulking and they're utilitarian and they look interesting," he says, "and they are spewing steam and I find that visually fascinating."

The problem is Bergman's fascination raises suspicions. He's routinely challenged by security guards and police officers — even when he's shooting on public property. Most of the time, the officials accept his explanation, but every now and then, they report him to the feds.

Once, two FBI agents showed up at his door, wanting to know what he'd been up to at the Port of Los Angeles.

"I show my portfolio. I show 'em what I was shooting. I may have shown 'em what I shot that day. And after five minutes of this, what felt like a really tense interrogation, they got really friendly. They realized I was harmless," Bergman says.

A year later, one of the same agents called him again, following up on another report. Bergman said the agent already knew he wasn't a threat, but he couldn't close the file until he'd asked him certain questions.

"He said to me, 'Do you hold any ill will toward the United States of America?' And I said, 'No, no I don't." And he says, 'OK.' "

What a waste of time says Mike German, who spent 16 years in the FBI.

"This is a system that is dulling the response, rather than helping," he says.

German is now senior policy counsel at the ACLU in Washington, D.C. His organization has obtained more than 1,800 of these suspicious activity reports, gathered in central California.

The ACLU got the reports through public records requests and posted them online. They're a fun read. You can see all the reports of suspicious people taking pictures of dams.

But there's also the two Middle Eastern men who bought $1,700 in cigarettes. There's the Sikh with the suspicious tattoo. And there's the inmate in Sacramento who was caught with a drawing that reads: "I Hate America."

"What we see here with these reports is that they are being based on people's political speech in some cases," German says. "And people's other First Amendment activity, like photography, and often based on their religion."

German says this violates a federal regulation that prevents police from sharing derogatory information about people if that information falls short of a reasonable suspicion of a crime. He says this program "dumbs down" the very concept of reasonable suspicion.

"There are certainly bad people out there who are intending to do harm. But the question shouldn't be: Do we respond to every single time somebody says somebody's doing something wrong? Or do we actually triage our work somehow based on evidence," German says.

The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative is led by the Justice Department. NPR tried without success to talk to officials there about the program and the ACLU's criticisms.

Last March, the Government Accountability Office faulted the program for not being able to track its own effectiveness. Meanwhile, the system is growing — fast. The GAO says 53 federal agencies now participate, in addition to the regional fusion centers where the information is collected.

And it all leaves photographer Bergman wondering what they're doing with the reports on him.

"Am I going to have problems at the border?" Bergman asks. "Are they going to take my laptop when I come back in the country? It makes me nervous that I'm not committing a crime, and the government is building records about what I'm up to."

He says it's a little like middle school, when you're left wondering what it is that's going on your permanent record.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We've heard a lot lately about high-tech snooping by the NSA. But the government also engages in less sophisticated, off-line surveillance of some people in the real world - like suspicious activity reports, efforts to collect tips about people's behavior, which the feds have been expanding. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hal Bergman is a freelance photographer in LA. He has a fondness for industrial scenes: bridges, ports, refineries.

HAL BERGMAN: They're large and they're hulking and they're utilitarian; and they look interesting. and they're spewing steam. And I find that visually fascinating.

KASTE: The problem is, Bergman's fascination often raises suspicions. He's routinely challenged by security guards and local cops, even when he's shooting on public property. Most of the time, they buy his explanation but every now and then, they report him to the feds. And once, two FBI agents showed up at his door, wanting to know what he'd been up to at the Port of Los Angeles.

BERGMAN: I show them my portfolio. I show him what I was shooting. I may have shown him the pictures that I shot that day. And after five minutes of this - what felt like a really tense interrogation, they got really friendly. They realized I was harmless.

KASTE: A year later, one of the same agents called him again, following up on yet another report. Bergman said the agent already knew he wasn't a threat, but he said he couldn't close the file until he'd asked Bergman certain questions.

BERGMAN: He said to me, do you hold any ill will toward the United States of America? (Laughter) And I said, no, no, I don't. He says, OK.

KASTE: What a waste of time, says Mike German. He spent 16 years in the FBI.

MIKE GERMAN: This is a system that is dulling the response, rather than helping.

KASTE: Today, German is senior policy counsel at the ACLU, in Washington. His organization has now obtained more than 1,800 of these suspicious-activity reports, gathered in central California. The ACLU got them with public records requests, and it's posting them online today. They're a fun read. You can see all the reports of suspicious people taking pictures of dams and bridges. But there's also the report filed on the two Middle Eastern men who bought $1,700 in cigarettes. There's the Sikh with the suspicious tattoo. And there's the inmate in Sacramento who was caught with a drawing that said, "I Hate America."

GERMAN: What we see here, with these reports, is that they are being based on people's political speech, in some cases; and people's other First Amendment activity, like photography; and often based on their religion.

KASTE: German says this violates a federal regulation that prevents police from sharing derogatory information about people, if that information falls short of a reasonable suspicion of a crime. He says the program dumbs down the very concept of reasonable suspicion.

GERMAN: There are certainly bad people out there who are intending to do harm. But the question shouldn't be, do we respond to every single time somebody says somebody is doing something wrong; or do we actually triage our work, somehow, based on evidence.

KASTE: The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative is led by the Justice Department. NPR tried - without success - to talk to them about the program and the ACLU's criticisms. Last March, the General Accounting Office faulted the program for not being able to track its own effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the system is growing - fast. The GAO says 53 federal agencies now participate, in addition to the regional fusion centers where the information is collected. And it all leaves photographer Hal Bergman wondering what they're doing with the reports on him.

BERGMAN: Am I going to have problems at the border? Are they going to take my laptop when I come back in the country? You know, it makes me nervous that I'm not committing a crime and that the government is building records on, you know - on what I'm up to.

He says it's a little like middle school, when you're left wondering what it is that they're putting on your permanent record.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.