Tuesday, July 6, 2010

ACLU Study Highlights US Surveillance Society, Launches "Spyfiles"

Do we live in a surveillance society? According to the ACLU's recent report the answer is yes. And, after making its case, the organization has also launched a new website to track incidents of domestic political surveillance by the government.

According to the report there have been 111 incidents of illegal domestic political surveillance since 9/11 in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

The report shows that law enforcement and federal officials work closely to monitor the political activity of individuals deemed suspicious, an activity that was previously common during the Cold War. That includes protests, religious activities and other rights protected by the first amendment, German said.

The spying could take the form of listening to phone calls, intercepting wireless communications, harassing photographers or infiltrating protest groups. Also discovered was the way in which agencies' are increasingly connected through various information sharing measures, making it more likely that information collected on an individual by a small police department could end up in an FBI or CIA database.

The report also noted how the FBI monitors peaceful protest groups and in some cases attempts to prevent protest activities. Its not hard to make the obvious connection between the increase in domestic political surveillance to an erosion of the standards of privacy and civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. The Patriot Act of course serves as exhibit A, as it authorized law enforcement to use tools domestically that were formerly restricted to hostile groups in foreign nations.

Let's go through some of the studies findings, as described by David Kravetz of Wired magazine:

The report, Policing Free Speech: Police Surveillance and Obstruction of First Amendment-Protected Activity, surveys news accounts and studies of questionable snooping and arrests in 33 states and the District of Columbia over the past decade.

The survey provides an outline of, and links to, dozens of examples of Cold War-era snooping in the modern age.

"Our review of these practices has found that Americans have been put under surveillance or harassed by the police just for deciding to organize, march, protest, espouse unusual viewpoints and engage in normal, innocuous behaviors such as writing notes or taking photographs in public," Michael German, an ACLU attorney and former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, said in a statement.

Here are a few examples:

At a California State University, Fresno lecture on veganism, six of the 60 in attendance were undercover officers from the local and campus police. The Oakland Police Department in California had infiltrated a police-brutality demonstration, and its undercover officers selected "the route of the march."

A vegetarian activist in Georgia was arrested for jotting down the license plate of a Department of Homeland Security agent who was snapping photos of a protest outside a Honey Baked Ham store. A Joint Terrorism Task Force in Illinois went on a three-day manhunt in Chicago searching for a Muslim man for his suspicious activity of using a hand counter on a bus. As it turned out, the man was counting his daily prayers.

A Kentucky minister was detained at Canadian border trying to enter the United States because he had purchased copies of the Koran on the internet following the 2001 terror attacks. A New York, Muslim-American student journalist was detained for taking pictures of Old Glory outside a Veterans Affairs building as part of a class project. The authorities deleted the pictures before releasing her an hour later.

In a kind of response to their own study, the ACLU launched "Spyfiles" in order to track domestic surveillance.

On the home page of the site it states, "Today the government is spying on Americans in ways the founders of our country never could have imagined. Intelligence agencies, the military, state and local police, private companies, and even emergency services are gathering detailed information and sharing it through new institutions like joint terrorism task forces, fusion centers, and public-private partnerships, allowing any one of them to instantly produce electronic dossiers on ordinary Americans with a simple mouse-click. More

Michael German, ACLU Policy Counsel and a former FBI Special Agent sums up the issue nicely:

"In our country, under our Constitution, the authorities aren't allowed to spy on you unless they have specific and individual suspicion that you are doing something illegal. Unfortunately, law enforcement in our country seems to be reverting to certain old, bad behaviors when it comes to political surveillance."

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