Edward Snowden, an NSA whistle-blower, recently revealed that the NSA has been secretly storing vast amounts of digital information collected from millions of Americans’ cell phone calls and Internet communications. Thanks to Snowden, citizens now have a much better idea of how busy their spy agencies have been, and who they have been targeting.
However, one group, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, is trying to alert people in Los Angeles to the fact that domestic spying doesn’t just happen at NSA headquarters in Maryland. Spying is local too, they say, and we can look no further than the Los Angeles Police Department.
“What is sorely missing in this supposed debate is the impact of similar programs of spying, data collection and surveillance on a local basis,” said Coalition organizer Hamid Khan at a recent news conference held in Venice. “We are all concerned about the revelations about NSA, [but] this is all local — all day, everyday.”
Though nowhere near as pervasive as the federal government’s data-collection, the Coalition argues the LAPD is doing its part to mimic the work of its “big brother,” the National Security Agency.
Since March 2008, LAPD officers have been reporting on behavior they believe to have a nexus to terrorism. In what are called suspicious activity reports, or SARs, officers report on what the department considers suspicious behavior. Through another police program, called iWatch, civilians too can report on suspicious behavior.
The behavior being reported by police may be as innocuous — and legal — as taking photographs of buildings or inquiring about its hours of operation. The reports garnered from these two programs are sent to fusion centers where they are shared with local, state and national law enforcement agencies across the nation.
SARs are also kept in several LAPD databases, whether or not the reports are deemed valid. Police officials have expressed their desire to keep these files for up to 10 years, causing privacy advocates to bristle.
The Coalition and its legal team have been also concerned about the legal language surrounding SARs, which they say casts aside a long-standing, Fourth Amendment tradition.
“We got to note the language,” said Khan. “There is no probable cause required.”
According to LAPD documents, officers need only to observe behavior that is “reasonably indicative of suspicious activity associated with terrorism.” The coalition argues this is a departure from the long-standing rubric of “reasonable suspicion” and outside normal criminal justice standards. The Coalition feels this nebulous language gives police too much latitude in their surveillance of civilians.
“What is happening very methodically is that any protections that people had around the threshold of probable cause and reasonable suspicion are being completely watered down,” said Khan. “Now we are looking at this completely speculative, hunch-based language.”
Besides the SARs and iWatch programs, the LAPD also has several cameras positioned around the city that use TrapWire technology, a predictive software that can allegedly detect suspicious behavior in connection with terrorism.
Another technology employed by the LAPD is a suitcase-sized device called StingRay. It mimics a cell phone tower, tricking every cell phone in a neighborhood into connecting to it. Once connected, police can grab information from everyone’s phone in the area, not just the suspects.
StingRay was purchased with Dept. of Homeland Security Funds. It was meant for counterterrorism, but according to documents obtained by LA Weekly, in 2012, the LAPD used StingRay 21 times within four-months in burglary, drug and murder investigations.
The LAPD has said their use of StingRay is legal. However, the department remains extremely secretive about it, declining to explain how the devices are used, how much money was spent on them or whether or not the department adequately explains the power of the technology to judges when seeking search warrants.
The desire to keep details about SARs, iWatch, TrapWire and StingRay from public knowledge is something the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has experienced firsthand with their own public records requests with the department. The Coalition, after a year in trying to get all the information it requested, has threatened legal action.
“The Coalition … is demanding how many contractors it has, what is the budget, what is the staffing, how much money is being spent, all the names of the private contracting companies and what has happened in the past few years, but LAPD is holding back,” said Khan. “They are not releasing that information.”
The documents that have trickled out of the department thus far do not reflect well on the LAPD. In April, we reported that documents obtained by the Coalition showed that, from March 2008 to July 2012, the LAPD had sent 3,001 SARs to the local fusion center in Norwalk. Eighty percent of those reports were found to be useless, and no document or statement from the department has shown that any SAR or iWatch report has stopped a terrorist attack.
The LAPD maintains that some useful information is being obtained from its programs. In 2012, Deputy Chief Michael Downing, told the Los Angeles Times that “there’s a lot of white noise, but there are occasionally gold nuggets.”
Knowledge of the NSA’s data collection on Americans has unnerved many, most especially political dissidents. It was recently reported by Salon that members of Occupy Wall Street had their cell phones logged by the government, according to security expert Steven Ramdam.
Typically it is activists who are the target of questionable government surveillance, but the fact the state is collecting information on anyone with a cell phone or Internet connection says the game may be changing. Nafeez Ahmed of the Guardian has theorized, based on previous statements and reports made by Western governments, including the U.S., that spy agencies like the NSA might be preparing for something much broader.
“The Pentagon knows that environmental, economic and other crises could provoke widespread public anger toward government and corporations in coming years,” he wrote. “Western publics are being increasingly viewed as potential enemies that must be policed by the state.”
From his work with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Khan sees all this surveillance as a means of potential social control. He views the problem from three angles. Data collection, such as SARs or NSA-style data mining, is one. The militarization of local law enforcement is another.
And lastly, community policing, which he said is where community leaders act as de facto government agents, informing on members of their own organizations or community, or bringing informants into their fold, at the behest of law enforcement.
“Where this will go is anybody’s guess,” he said, “but for us it is very critical — that this is what a police state looks like, how a police state acts and enforces on an operational basis.”
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