ACLU urges surveillance centers to narrow 'suspicious activity' standards

[JURIST] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Thursday accused [press release] governmental surveillance centers of invasion of privacy and reliance on racial and religious profiling in their Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) and urged [letter, PDF] the centers to adopt stricter standards of reporting. Commonly known as "fusion centers" [website], these government surveillance units were established by Congress after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in order to foster cooperation between different law enforcement agencies. SARs are submitted by police, often at the request of community members or security guards, and are then analyzed by the fusion centers for perceived threats to national security. Having obtained numerous SARs from two fusion centers in California, the ACLU alleges a trend of privacy violations reflecting racial and religious bias. Among these reports were complaints of an unfriendly Middle Eastern neighbor and a group of Asian males who were taking photographs of an architectural structure. The FBI [official website] currently encourages fusion centers to examine all potentially terrorism-related activities, without limitation. The ACLU called the existing standard vague, and urged fusion centers to adopt a new, heightened standard that would examine only reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

The revelations surrounding US surveillance programs have sparked worldwide debate and controversy. Earlier this week the ACLU released [press release] a report [text, PDF] calling on the Obama administration and Congress to rein in the expanding power of the FBI. Last month the Council of Europe [official website] expressed concern [JURIST report] over the UK reaction to the exposure of the US surveillance program. In June the ACLU in conjunction with the New York Civil Liberties Union [advocacy website] filed suit [JURIST report] against the National Security Agency (NSA) [official website] challenging its recently revealed phone data collection. Although the president and top officials have defended the surveillance as a lawful counterterrorism measure, several US lawmakers have called for a review [JURIST report] of the government's surveillance activity in light of recent reports revealing phone and Internet monitoring. Lawmakers have also called for a criminal investigation into the activities of Edward Snowden, who came forward in early June as the whistleblower in the NSA surveillance scandal [JURIST podcast]. Snowden is a 29-year-old former CIA technical worker that accessed the surveillance files when he was contracted as a civilian to work on projects for the NSA. He stated in an interview with The Guardian that he released the material because he believed the surveillance violated the right to privacy. JURIST Guest Columnist Christina Wells argues that the broad provisions of the Espionage Act [text], under which Snowden is charged, raise significant First Amendment concerns [JURIST op-ed].

 

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