Privacy SOS

When speech becomes suspicious: the FBI’s “communities against terrorism”

The FBI wants you to know that paying with cash, being concerned about your privacy (or as the FBI calls it, your "privacy"), and taking an "unusual" interest in surveillance or security procedures are all suspicious activities that could be linked to terrorism. 

Last week, Public Intelligence posted a file containing a number of FBI "Communities Against Terrorism" cheat sheets, which contain information about supposed terrorism risk indicators, directed at various groups of people or private entities. Among the categories are: 

  • construction sites
  • electronics stores
  • hobby shops
  • hotels and malls
  • internet cafés
  • entertainment facilities
  • martial arts and paintball activities
  • mass transportation and
  • "sleepers" — or "otherwise persons who camouflage their involvement in terrorist activity or planning by attempting to fit in with others in our society."

(That last bit is awfully strange, isn't it? You'd assume that anyone bent on committing acts of terrorism would want to camouflage their involvement with that activity, no?)

You might think: great! The FBI is reaching out to communities and businesses, doing due diligence to ensure that many different communities in the United States have the information they need to protect themselves and their surroundings from those who would do them harm. And indeed, some of the FBI's advice to businesses and the public make sense. For example, when advising farm store suppliers about things to watch out for, the FBI lists a number of chemicals that might be used to manufacture a bomb, and advises that shop owners ask for identification whenever people purchase those materials. 

But the cheat sheets go well beyond commonsense advice, and encroach directly on our rights to freedom of speech and freedom from government intrusion into our private lives. We've talked for a long time about the FBI's classification of commonplace activities like taking notes or photography as "suspicious activities," and these sheets repeat those mistakes. But there are three other trends in these documents that warrant particular concern.

First is the notion that Muslims are a dangerous enemy within; second is the conflation of unpopular speech or dissent with terrorism; and third is the notion that if we are concerned with privacy, we are somehow suspicious.

How to spot a "sleeper"

There is ample evidence to suggest that the FBI has made Muslims its enemy number one in the agency's anti-terrorism work. A cursory glance at its dedicated resources, investigations, surveillance, and personnel training reveals an obsession with Muslims and Islam that does not match reality. As a recent terrorism study showed, the threat from radical Muslims to the United States is "minuscule" and shrinking every year, but you wouldn't know it by listening to the FBI.

After the ACLU and journalists last year revealed the extent to which the FBI was relying on extremely racist and ignorant training materials to teach counterterrorism, President Obama ordered an investigation into the practice. But the "Communities Against Terrorism" document advising on "Potential Indicators of Terrorist Activities Related to Sleepers" still relies on the assumption that Islam and Muslims are public enemy number one in the United States.

Here are some choice segments from the document. Judge for yourself whether or not you think the FBI is specifically targeting Muslims, absent any evidence that Muslims are more dangerous to the US than any other group of people.

Equating unpopular speech with propensity for criminal activity

As you can see in the example cited above, the FBI not only inappropriately targets Muslims and Islam, but also suggests that expressing "fury at the West," "excusing violence against Americans on the grounds that American actions provoked the problem," or harboring "conspiracy theories about Westerners" are "attitude indicators" that should raise red flags. 

But if that's true, many of us are in for an FBI investigation into our unpopular speech. Here are a series of quotes from high profile public people, including a GOP presidential candidate, that raise alarm given the FBI's above cited criteria.

Do these comments warrant the FBI digging into the speakers' personal lives in order to find out if they are dangerous terrorists? If you hear someone say things like this on television, should you immediately pick up the phone and call the FBI tips line?

1. On US actions and the notion that violence against Americans can be provoked by American actions:

We're under great threat because we occupy so many countries. We're in 130 countries. We have 900 bases around the world. We're going broke. The purpose of al-Qaeda was to attack us, invite us over there, where they can target us. And they have been doing it. They have more attacks against us and the American interests per month than occurred in all the years before 9/11. But we're there, occupying their land. And if we think that we can do that and not have retaliation, we're kidding ourselves.

That was GOP presidential candidate and Congressperson Ron Paul. I wonder how large his FBI file is.

2. On "fury at the West":

This was just simple murder…America is the big evil. We are just a small mouthful in front of America.

That was a Senator from Pakistan, a close ally of the United States and one of the top recipients of US State Department and military aid, speaking after suspected CIA agent Raymond Davis killed two Pakistanis in broad daylight in that country. 

3. On "conspiracy theories about Westerners":

[9/11] couldn’t possibly have been done the way the government told us.”

That was Judge Andrew Napolitano, a libertarian who until last week had a very popular FOX Business television program.

Don't hold your breath for the FBI to initiate terrorism prosecutions of any of the above people. Perhaps advocating "extreme" ideology is only really a problem when you are Muslim.

Don't cover your computer screen or use encryption: that's suspicious

The FBI is concerned about unpopular, "anti-US" speech, but it is also concerned about how speech is protected. Or rather, the agency thinks it is suspicious if you try to protect your communications or data from its — or hackers' — prying eyes.

Do you care about your privacy online? Are you concerned about the fact that the government can now routinely, warrantlessly subpoena access to your most intimate information, including your real-time credit card and travel information, your cell phone data, and your IP address?

Do you encrypt any of your internet data, like your email or your instant messaging? Do you use Tor, or another service that helps prevent the tracking of your physical location online?

Are you a journalist? A lawyer? A businessperson? Does your line of work require that you keep confidential sources, or that you ensure that your client's information is not disclosed to anyone, including hackers or government spies? 

Or maybe you are just an ordinary person who doesn't want your credit card information to be scooped up by hackers at an internet cafe. Maybe you don't want your ex-partner, who is a computer expert, to be able to snoop into your unencrypted email. 

In short: there are literally thousands of legitimate reasons for us to want to maintain some privacy online. But to the FBI, all of that is so much nonsense. Your interest in online privacy is suspect, says its "Communities Against Terrorism" documents. And if you own an internet cafe or an electronics shop, the FBI wants your help in ratting out those among us who take some precautionary measures to protect ourselves online and in the digital world.

The "Communities Against Terrorism" documents repeatedly reference paying with cash, being "overly concerned about privacy," and expression of so-called "anti-US" sentiments as grounds for suspicion. But the documents particular to electronics stores and internet cafes are especially interesting, because they directly assault the notion that privacy has intrinsic value.

Among the highlights from the internet cafe document:

These lists of suspicious activity mean that anyone with basic computer skills or research interests in anarchism could unfairly be labeled suspicious.

The advice to owners of electronics stores is similarly obtuse and troubling.

Among the advisories in the electronics stores document:

In other words, if you are interested in trying to protect yourself from the government's all-seeing digital surveillance eye, you are suspicious. Given the woefully inadequate statutory protections against improper government spying that allow for serious violations of our privacy, taking precautionary measures like those listed above may be your only hope of escaping the digital surveillance matrix. 

But if you try to escape, beware: ironically enough, doing so may make you a target. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.