Friday, November 8, 2013

Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative out of control

Blast Furnace - Birmingham, ALThe Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative (NSI) is a collaborative effort led by the US Department of Justice in partnership with the US Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as state and local law enforcement agencies. The initiative was ostensibly established to create a coordinated national capacity for gathering, documenting, processing, analyzing, and sharing SAR information to help prevent terrorism and other criminal activity.

On the surface, that appears to merely be a national database initiative of what law enforcement agencies have been doing for years, gathering information regarding criminal behavior and activities, but NSI is different, vastly different.

 Under NSI, data collection is often without the customary restrictions the US Constitution imposes on law enforcement agencies; reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause.

The problem with NSI reporting and record keeping for photographers, and travel photographers in particular is that many of the activities it targets seem unsuspicious to a reasonable person. In fact, in many cases, much of the activity questioned under the reporting program, is of people engaging in activities protected by the First Amendment.

Here is an example of the reports obtained by the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act,
“I was called out to the above address regarding a male who was taking photographs of the [name of facility blacked out] in [Commerce, California]. The male stated, he is an artist and enjoys photographing buildings in industrial areas … (and) stated he is a professor at San Diego State private college, and takes the photos for his art class.”
Judging from a quick search on Google of “industrial plant images” the professor isn't alone in making that kind of image. I stopped counting at about 5,000 images from the search, and barely scratched the surface. I guess I'm at risk myself, in becoming listed in the database, as I too like to photograph interesting industrial plants, like the one in the photo above.

Scanning “Suspicious Activity Reports from Joint Regional Intelligence Center (Los Angeles region),” I found the below reports in the NSI database:
“On 5/11/2012, an identified subject was reported to be taking photographs of a bridge crossing the American River Bike trail near [location blacked out]. At the time of this incident, [near Folsom Dam] deputies were responding to a helicopter flying over Post 3…”
This hits home for me. I'm going to be photographing wildlife at the base of the Conowingo Dam later this month. What are the authorities going to think of me when the hydroelectric dam is in my viewfinder?

Another incident in the database is:
“On 4/19/2012, a Gault PD officer made contact with [name blacked out] who was taking pictures of trains on Union Pacific property. [name blacked out] stated to the officer that he was a train enthusiast and had been following a particular train from the Yuba area.”
Does making photographs of trains in a train yard, from outside the yard really seem like a suspicious activity? I have a colleague whose thousands of train images are absolutely spectacular.
How about this incident, also in Galt:
“On 2/15/2012, Galt Police Department officers made contact with [name blacked out] whom was taking photographs of the CSt overpass that is currently under construction. [name blacked out] stated that he owned a photography business and liked taking photographs of bridges.”
I see travelers and others making photographs of bridges all the time. They can be very interesting subjects. I photograph bridges myself.
Wills Citty, reporting on SAR for the National Press Photographers Association Advocacy Committee, reported on the central issues plaguing the SAR initiative, such as,
“The FBI's eGuardian program, the other arm of the initiative (The other program which is part of the initiative is the National Intelligence Information Sharing Environment (ISE)), does not meet the higher standards of ISE. The continued reporting of non-threatening behavior suggests that this disjoint is one of the causes of the problem.”
ISE standards state that, “…the same constitutional standards that apply when conducting ordinary criminal investigations also apply to local law enforcement and homeland security officers conducting SAR inquiries.”

The disjoint allows reports like the above examples about photographers, who are conducting Constitutionally protected activity, to be included in the database, with their identity information, as if they are potential terrorists or criminals, when all they are doing is making interesting images of subjects in public view, while standing in public spaces, which are decidedly not suspicious to any reasonable thinking person.

Many photographers are deeply troubled and concerned that SAR policies are increasingly creating a climate of fear and suspicion throughout the US under the pretext of safety and security. This untenable atmosphere is not only affecting professional photographers, but even vacationers just out to have a good time and snap some photos of their travels.

I hope you'll consider joining me in contacting Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to reform the SAR rules so only truly reasonable suspicion of terrorism and criminal activity is submitted into the NSI database.


Suzanne - Bismark said...

It's about time someone takes the government to task for all these programs which violate our rights. Making matters worse, they don't make us safe.

Great article.

Tim - LA said...

I had no idea this was going on. This is outrageous.

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