Privacy SOS

On photography, suspicious activity, and how surveillance stifles creative expression

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The ACLU has published a number of so-called 'Suspicious Activity Reports' from the Los Angeles fusion center, one of tens of spy centers established with DHS funds in the years after the 9/11 attacks. Fusion centers were set up to facilitate the production and sharing of intelligence among state, local, and federal security agencies. One of the major roles these spy centers perform is to handle suspicious activity reports, which are filed either by individuals or security agencies. Once the fusion center receives the tips, they are processed by analysts and sent to the FBI for further investigation. 

It sounds like pretty serious stuff. The documents published by the ACLU suggest otherwise, showing that Los Angeles law enforcement and private security are very worried about…photography. 

NPR reports:

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.
A waste of time, indeed. While FBI agents and cops are busy interrogating photographers about their political beliefs, they aren't engaged in investigations into people who might actually intend to harm someone, or who have already broken the law. 
As Mike German points out in the ACLU's recent report on FBI abuses, 'Unleashed and Unaccountable,' "more than half of the violent crimes, including over a third of the murders in the US, go unsolved each year." Meanwhile the FBI is collecting more information about ordinary people than ever before. German's report tells us that the FBI's many databases likely contain over six billion discrete records. These so-called suspicious activity reports are probably among them.
What's the value in holding onto information like this, about people accused of no crime and suspected of no specific wrongdoing? Why does the FBI want state and local police, and even private security officers, to act as its eyes and ears on the ground to monitor and interrogate people taking photographs in public? And have these suspicious activity reports ever actually borne out useful information that has led to the arrest of a terrorist plot?
The answer to the last question appears to be no. But the program continues, nevertheless.
Contrary to the driving motivation behind the national security state, adding more and more information about the commonplace, everyday activities of ordinary people does not aid public safety efforts. As the ACLU's public records work here shows, however, it has an extremely negative impact on our freedom.
For just one example, the image above shows you just how ridiculous the suspicious activity program is in practice. Filming the police is not suspicious, nor is it criminal. But this useless and harmful piece of 'intelligence' is probably stuck in the information matrix for the foreseeable future anyhow, where it mucks up the government's information systems, making it less likely that useful intelligence will float to the surface.
The photographer NPR interviewed in the story I excerpted above, who was visited by the FBI because of his interest in industrial buildings, should serve as a reminder to us all about the chilling effect of a mass surveillance regime. In order for people to feel safe to explore their creative interests and pursuits, we need to be sure that we aren't being constantly monitored. Our quirks and specialized hobbies should not land us in jail, or result in government agents interrogating us about our political beliefs. This photographer's brush with the suspicious activity program is a clear example of how surveillance can stifle creative thought and expression, and promote conformity. 
People in the US once looked at communist East Germany and the USSR and saw hopeless grey landscapes, where artists and intellectuals feared taking risks, and conforming with official thought was expected. The suspicious activity program would have fit in seamlessly in these totalitarian societies.
It should have no place in ours.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.