Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) isa program supported by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to enlist local law enforcement and civilians in collecting and reporting information about suspected terrorist activity.  The ACLU is concerned that the SAR program is just a repeat of the discredited “TIPS” program under a new name.

The SAR Program

With the roll-out of the program, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence provided a list of activities that local law enforcement should report as potentially indicating terrorist activity. The list initially identified the following activities as “suspicious:”

  • Drawing
  • Photography
  • Note-Taking
  • Observation

With pressure from the National ACLU and others, the Director of National Intelligence has revised its guidelines for local law enforcement.

The Community SAR Program

The first phase of the program focuses on reporting by law enforcement officials. In the second phase, local law enforcement are encouraged to enlist civilians in monitoring and reporting “suspicious activities” of others.  In Los Angeles, police are asking the public to report suspicious activities via their iWatch portal.  The LAPD lists the following activities as suspicious:

  • Possession of a Staples Center event schedule
  • Using binoculars
  • Taking measurements
  • Drawing diagrams
  • Taking notes
  • Photography
  • Changing appearances
  • Evasiveness
  • Holding “extremist” views
  • Membership in a group with “extremist” affiliation

Building Communities of Trust

On January 28, 2010, the ACLU of Washington attended the Building Communities of Trust program, sponsored by the Seattle Police Department, the Department of Justice, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.  The program provided background on the SAR initiative.  The ACLU-WA stated its concern with accountability and oversight, and will continue to monitor the local SAR initiative to help ensure compliance with civil liberties safeguards.

The ACLU has submitted a public records request in order to learn more about Seattle’s program, including its criteria for what is “suspicious.” Read our request.

The Return of Operation TIPS and Total Information Awareness?

The ACLU-WA is concerned that the community SAR program is an attempt to revive the discredited Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) and TIA (Total Information Awareness) programs. 

Operation TIPS sought to recruit letter carriers, utility workers, cable installers and others whose jobs allow them access to private residences to report "suspicious" activity without any relationship to criminal activity.  Congress shut down Operation TIPS in 2002, due to intense public backlash. 

The Total Information Awareness (TIA) program was a mammoth data mining program that envisioned programming computers to trawl through an extensive list of databases containing personal information about Americans – including communications, medical, travel, education and financial data – in an attempt to detect supposedly "suspicious" patterns. Congress shut down the program amid bipartisan objections that it was the most far-reaching domestic surveillance proposal that had ever been offered.