Privacy SOS

Listen to Minnesota Public Radio on Suspicious Activity Reporting:

There are two kinds of post 9/11 “Suspicious Activity Reports.”  First, the term was applied to the flagging of “questionable” financial transactions that could indicate terrorist funding.  Nearly a million “SARs” are issued by banks each year.

Then, in an effort to document and make available as much information as possible regarding activities that are merely potential indicators of crime, the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative was conceived and piloted in Boston, among other cities.

The SARs Initiative requires that police officers report anything that could (in a stretch) be considered suspicious, such as using binoculars, taking measurements, taking pictures or video footage, taking notes, or espousing “extremist” views.  SARs can also be filed by private sector organizations and foreign partners.

The government defines a Suspicious Activity Report as “official documentation of observed behavior that may be indicative of intelligence gathering, or preoperational planning related to terrorism, criminal, or other illicit intention.” After an initial review, “unfinished” reports are sent to fusion centers for further analysis. 

Those that seem credible are either fed into the Department of Homeland Security’s nationwide Information Sharing Environment (ISE) or deposited in the massive FBI database called eGuardian. The FBI is supposed to supply fusion centers with “federated” SARs information to assist in its “risk assessment” analysis. Fusion center analysts frequently turn to the FBI for information, finding eGuardian easier to access than the official DHS Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN).

SARs are intended to document and share information about what could be potential crimes before they happen. In the data-gathering fusion centers, files on individuals and groups are compiled and shared that are full of information about activities that may be entirely innocent, and in some cases, constitutionally protected. 

Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano has called fusion centers and SARs the “heart” of DHS efforts to protect Americans from “homegrown terrorism.” But in late 2010, a report by the Department’s Inspector General indicated that although there were signs of improvement in how the Nationwide SAR Initiative and fusion centers functioned, serious “information system challenges” remained.

© 2017 ACLU of Massachusetts.