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Citizens fear reporting 'suspicious activity' will hurt the innocent

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By now, travelers are all too familiar with the Department of Homeland Security’s most visible advertising campaign. If you see something suspicious, instruct the billboards and public service announcements, say something to authorities.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made her “See Something, Say Something” campaign a top priority and rarely misses an opportunity to remind citizens about the importance of reporting any questionable behavior that could be linked to terrorism.

But when survey respondents were asked why they still might hesitate to report suspicious activity, 43 percent said they were worried about getting innocent people in trouble. Some of the respondents were uncomfortable judging their fellow citizens, while others worried that ringing up the police could turn out to be a waste of resources. A portion mistrusted law enforcement to begin with.

The findings lay bare a critical question at the core of Napolitano’s initiative: How can anyone be truly certain that his or her neighbor is suspicious enough to notify the government?

“When it came to suspicious activity that may not necessarily be classified as criminal activity, some participants reported not knowing exactly what qualified as ‘important enough’ to report,” says a joint study [PDF] released this year by the Homeland Security Department and International Association of Chiefs of Police. “They wanted to avoid being wrong or appearing ‘foolish’ in the eyes of local law enforcement.”  

Mike Sena, deputy director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, says the public just has to be better educated on suspicious activity. Dozens of state and local-controlled fusion centers were developed at no small expense around the nation after Sept. 11, 2001, as a way for authorities across the spectrum to collect and analyze threat intelligence.

“That’s the hardest thing. We want people to understand we’re not trying to create a nation of informants,” said Sena, who is a leader on the role local police play in counterterrorism as president of the National Fusion Center Association. “The most concerning thing from the survey was that such a high percentage of respondents just didn’t trust law enforcement. That worries me more than anything.”

More instructional videos, trust-building and even celebrity backing are necessary for it to work, Sena said. Colorado enlisted football legend John Elway for a slickly produced public service announcement on how to recognize the “eight signs of terrorism.” One sign, the video says, is scoping out a potential target for strengths and weaknesses. Another is seeking employment at a sensitive facility to better understand its day-to-day activities.

John Elway in Colorado’s “8 Signs of Terrorism”

Observers still must distinguish between a tourist taking souvenir photos and terrorists planning an attack. It’s a matter of what’s being photographed, says the Colorado video. “Are they looking at the scenery or a high-security facility?”

The answer leaves a stubborn lack of clarity that has resulted in numerous people being stopped and questioned while photographing the wide array of facilities now considered to be “high security,” including courthouses and government administrative buildings. In other words, the suspicious activity dragnet has appeared to scoop up innocent people not accused of wrongdoing, just as critics feared.

Michael German is one those critics. A former FBI agent who worked terrorism cases but eventually condemned the government’s sweeping surveillance efforts and joined the American Civil Liberties Union, German said the public has yet to see adequate evidence that suspicious activity reports work in the first place.

“Here’s this very expensive program that has a high cost on privacy and civil liberties,” German said. “And rather than try to use their scientific research to determine whether this is an effective methodology for finding terrorists … they’re using it to figure out how to better sell the program.”

In a partnership last year with National Public Radio, the Center for Investigative Reporting obtained hundreds of pages of documents describing a suspicious activity reporting program at Minnesota’s mammoth Mall of America. Shoppers were stopped and questioned for taking photographs, writing in a notebook and leaving a cell phone behind in a food court.


A Mall of America report describes two men from California who were stopped and questioned.

Private guards then wrote up reports about the run-ins and included personal information about the shoppers before forwarding them on to local police. From there, the reports ended up in the hands of federal law enforcement and a Minnesota state fusion center. One Pakistani family was startled by a visit from the FBI. Agents insisted the memory card of another shopper’s camera be confiscated.

Officials do offer up what they consider to be success stories. There’s the incident in early 2011 when three cleanup workers reported a suspicious backpack near parade-goers celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The bag turned out to contain a radio-controlled pipe bomb.

Other examples begin to unravel with scrutiny. An employee reported suspicious people at the self-storage facility where he worked, but the individuals already were under surveillance by the FBI.

Congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office looked at a Transportation Security Administration program designed to spot suspicious behavior, and a subsequent report [PDF] showed that 50,000 travelers were pulled aside for additional screening. That led to 300 arrests, most of which had to do with everyday criminal activities or immigration violations. The TSA has difficulty saying whether the cases were linked to terrorism.   

Then there's the question of whether any genuine successes made so far justify the sheer volume of reports that contain personal information belonging to people who have violated no known rules or laws. It’s impossible to know how many suspicious activity reports have been generated by private companies and local police after 10 years of the war on terror. 

But one national computer network developed for collecting and analyzing a segment of them called Shared Space contained more than 15,000 reports by last fall. Two-thousand new ones were added by early March of this year, and the database had been searched some 40,000 times, according to new figures obtained by CIR.

Sena said that’s why intelligence fusion centers are essential – they’ll have the local perspective to understand when a suspicious activity report truly matters. No one wants to discourage the public from reporting trouble, he said, but citizens can be better informed about what helps and what does not.

“Just because something is reported as suspicious activity doesn’t really mean it’s got a lot of validity,” Sena said. “Just because you have a pile of junk doesn’t mean that you have a tool. You just have a pile of junk. … Anytime you set up a tip line, you get chaff. You get things that probably shouldn’t be reported.”

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report


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