Privacy SOS

DHS findings: People are insufficiently suspicious of their neighbors!

How can you be a better snitch patriot? How can DHS make you feel more comfortable calling, texting, tweeting, facebooking, emailing, or mobile app-ing your concerns about the people around you to the police or the feds? Why don't you feel comfortable doing this now? Why aren't you more afraid?

DHS wants to know.

Ok, so those weren't exactly the questions DHS had a private research firm ask US residents during in person focus group and telephone polling sessions, but they are close. Here's an actual question:

"What would make the reporting of suspicious activity easier for you and your neighbors?" 

Part of the problem, as DHS saw it, was that people weren't reporting on each other enough. It's not only a "quality" problem, but a "quantity" problem that needs fixing, it says. So naturally, it did focus groups. And polling. (At cost to taxpayers? I don't know; couldn't find out.)

So how'd we do when put to the FEAR TEST, we US residents? Not bad, actually. 

When DHS' private contractor ICF Macro laid out a bunch of scenarios for people and asked if they would report "suspicious" activity to the police in those situations, forty-three percent of the people who demurred said that they would hesitate out of "concern you may get an innocent person in trouble." Kudos, USA! That's some great independent thinking and love of neighbor, not to mention clear evidence that the government's sustained fear campaigns have not had the intended effect of sufficiently frightening us into submission or fear of one another. There is hope yet!

Though disturbingly, some of the fear-mongering over the past ten years must have rubbed off on young people more effectively than our older compatriots: while 54% of people aged 65+ said they didn't want to rat on people for fear that they would harm an innocent person, only 41% of 18-34 year olds said the same. Older respondents also reported being more uncomfortable judging people than the younger participants.

But strangely enough, while young people are less afraid of getting innocent people in trouble with the cops, they also don't trust them, fear them, and were the most likely of all the demographics to think that police wouldn't take their suspicious activity reports seriously! Kids these days…so confused!

Distaste for the notion of getting innocent people locked up for no reason wasn't the only reason people said they wouldn't report "suspicious activities" to police. They also listed "fear of retaliation" and discomfort with "judging others." One in three respondents said that they wouldn't report the incident or person because they weren't sure it was a "worthwhile use of police resources." More than one in five said that they wouldn't report because of "fear or mistrust of law enforcement" — but again, that spikes to more than one in three for people aged 18-34.

The better to report you with, my pretty

Besides asking why people wouldn't report, DHS also tasked its contractor with asking people about the "methods for reporting" they were most likely and comfortable to use. Most people said that if there was some kind of suspicious emergency they'd call 9-1-1. But one in three said that they'd happily submit a suspicious activity report via an anonymous mobile app, like the one the Virginia Fusion Center released to the public earlier this year.

Fancy mobile app or no, DHS found that the biggest problem is that people simply weren't getting the message about suspicious activity reporting. No one in the enormous government bureaucracy thought it possible that people are simply not comfortable with its Stasi 2.0 methodology, and so emphasis is instead put on further educating the American public. "The importance of educating the public about suspicious activity reporting was emphasized throughout the research," the report says. 

In order to better educate us about why we should be afraid and vigilant and suspicious of everything happening around us at all times, however, DHS needs to "better understand how to most effectively deliver the message to the public." And so they asked the focus group and telephone poll participants "about their preferred sources of information."

People said public service announcements on TV and radio were probably the most effective, next to, in descending order of importance: presentations at school, work or community meetings; billboards; posters in mass transit stations; educational pamphlets; ads in local newspapers; an email or text alert; and links of community or local government websites.

So look out for DHS propaganda about suspicious activity reporting coming at you via all of those mediums! Lucky us! 

Think locally, report suspicious activity locally

Among DHS' major findings from the research is that police and federal enforcement agencies need to promote "the shared responsibility of suspicious activity reporting [so that] law enforcement can benefit from the extra eyes and ears on the neighborhood, and the public will feel more trusting toward law enforcement and more invested in community safety." (Hey DHS, just a thought: a better way for you to get people to trust law enforcement would be to stop promoting a law enforcement framework that enables stuff like this, this, this, this, this, this and this.)

DHS then says that local vigilante operations like the "Neighborhood Watch" program or other "volunteer groups" are great assets that can help police follow up on tip statuses and even fill out paperwork in coordination with officials. (Um, seriously? I guess this report was written before "neighborhood watch" volunteer George Zimmerman killed young Trayvon Martin in Florida last month.)

It isn't just that we silly civilians don't fully appreciate our "responsibility" to serve as foot-soldiers for the modern Stasi, no no no. The knowledge gap goes deeper, to DHS' great dismay. Shockingly, when people surveyed were asked what they thought was suspicious activity they reported such things as people breaking into cars, brandishing guns or other weapons, and other obviously criminal, harmful, scary stuff.

DHS haz a major sad about this: "Only five percent of survey respondents described potential pre-operational terrorist activity. This indicates that members of the public do not typically perceive suspicious activity as it may relate to potential terrorism related operations." ONLY FIVE PERCENT! ZOMG!

People! You are insufficiently afraid and obsessed with the kind of violence that is so utterly unlikely to ever happen to you that you are more likely to get struck by lightning four times than killed by terrorists! But that's irrelevant. Be more afraid! For shame!

It's a major problem, but DHS has a fix: "Communication must encourage the public to expand its idea of suspicious activity to include behaviors that in and of themselves may not be criminal but may be precursors to or indicative of a terrorist act." Got it? Expand your minds, people. Think big, fearsome thoughts.

Getting people over that "not afraid" hump is not going to be easy, though. And besides, people keep yapping about incriminating innocent people. "Concerns about getting innocent people in trouble…are significant barriers to suspicious activity reporting." But DHS has a solution to that problem too. After all, who better to assuage our concerns than our own "local leaders"? 

"Public messaging about the importance of suspicious activity should come from local leaders," DHS says. Janet Napolitano hawking the program isn't cutting it, apparently. Send in the mayor!

Besides overcoming the significant hurdles posed by NOT ENOUGH FEAR and concerns about incriminating innocent people, respondents also mentioned being worried about retaliation. So DHS proposes that local officials produce better ways for people to anonymously snitch, in order to make them feel more comfortable doing so. No matter that this will also make the likelihood of abusive, intentional false reporting much higher, the report says: "Communities should leverage new technologies to promote anonymous and easily accessible methods of reporting." Make it easier and anonymous! What could go wrong?

Let's review. The major problems, as DHS sees it: People aren't afraid enough, and worry that they will get someone innocent in trouble with police that they don't trust.

Instead of fixing the underlying problems that lead to this mistrust, though, DHS' plan is to simply drill down on the fear quotient — what it calls "education." Sure, that guy might not be doing anything criminal, but why wait? Better to report him than not to, the message seems to be.

In its quest to reeducate US persons about the innumerable, fearsome, diverse threats among us, DHS will have to catch up to the FBI, which has been busy instilling fear into the minds of shop owners and hotel managers for years now. Watch for the signs, people. You might even be a suspicious character, and you just don't know it.


© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.