Buying Water is Not a Suspicious Activity

Have you ever attended a protest? Have you ever taken a photo of a bridge or subway car? Maybe you’ve been so bold as to endanger the lives of your fellow Americans by buying a large case of bottled water?

As innocuous as these activities may seem, they are actual reasons that people around the United States have appeared in the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) database.

Disturbing new information obtained by the ACLU of California confirms warnings the ACLU has made for years that if your day-to-day life has seemed suspicious to anyone at all, there’s a chance a record of your name and the offending activity may appear in the government’s massive national database of Suspicious Activity Reports. Under the NSI and related programs, everyone – our neighbors, public employees, storekeepers, local police – are encouraged to help spy on us.

For years these databases, operated by the FBI, the Director of National Intelligence, and state and local law enforcement agencies, have collected reports from individual citizens and local law enforcement about the “suspicious” activities of other people in the name of anti-terrorism. And according to the GAO, of the more than 27,000 reports that have been shared (and many more that have been collected) to date, there’s no evidence that any have been used to thwart any kind of terrorist threat.

Instead, the documents obtained by ACLU through a public records request confirm that rampant racial, ethnic, and religious stereotyping is taking place.

The Suspicious Activity Report program violates our rights, leads to profiling of minority groups, and has been a colossal waste of law enforcement time and resources.

The good news is we have a chance to change this. The agencies that run NSI are right now working on revisions to the rules that govern what kind of reports are kept and for how long. If we act now, we can push the Department of Justice to ensure that Suspicious Activity Reports are supported by a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and allow for us all to engage in constitutionally protected activities without being considered a terrorism suspect.

To Attorney General Eric Holder:

Engaging in everyday activities like taking photos or attending protests should not be treated by federal agencies as reasons for suspicion. Reform the rules governing Suspicious Activity Reporting so that information is not submitted to counterterrorism databases unless there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

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