Monday, January 05, 2009

Database Turns Citizens to Terrorists

I'm not surprised by stories detailing how our government spies on citizens. It was going on when I first learned to read the newspapers, and the last few years have seen it ramp up once again. The reason this story caught my attention is the way a computer database program (or more accurately, police officers using the wrong database for their purpose) exacerbated the situation. Here's the Washington Post article: More Groups Than Thought Monitored in Police Spying: New Documents Reveal Md. Program's Reach, by Lisa Rein and Josh White, January 4, 2009.

The Maryland State Police surveillance of advocacy groups was far more extensive than previously acknowledged, with records showing that troopers monitored -- and labeled as terrorists -- activists devoted to such wide-ranging causes as promoting human rights and establishing bike lanes.

Intelligence officers created a voluminous file on Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calling the group a "security threat" because of concerns that members would disrupt the circus. Angry consumers fighting a 72 percent electricity rate increase in 2006 were targeted. The DC Anti-War Network, which opposes the Iraq war, was designated a white supremacist group, without explanation.

....The operation has been called a "waste of resources" by the current police superintendent and "undemocratic" by the governor.

Here's where the database program enters the story. Until this point, the Washington Post story follows a novice undercover cop infiltrating innocuous community organizations. Her bosses considered it training for real, necessary undercover work. But then they got a computer program, for free!

Police had turned to the database in a low-cost effort to replace antiquated file cabinets. The Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a regional clearinghouse for drug-related criminal information, offered its software for free.

But the database did not include categories that fit the nature of the protest-group investigations. So police created "terrorism" categories to track the activists, according to the state review. Some information was sent directly to HIDTA's main database as part of an agreement to share information.

....The activists fear that they will land on federal watch lists, in part because the police shared their intelligence information with at least seven area law enforcement agencies.

The police didn't consider the activists they were watching potential terrorists. However, they had data, and nowhere appropriate to put it. They did what most people would do--they shoehorned it into a place they thought it might fit. Too bad they shared it around the nation. There's no telling where it will turn up.


Larry said...

That certainly is frightening! I can just imagine being pulled over by a state patrolman and having my name trigger a match from that database. Hopefully "blogger" isn't a category...

Sherry said...

Keystone Kops.

Not at all reassuring, even if your name isn't on their list.

Marvin said...

As Sherry indicated, potentially funny in a Keystone Kops sort of way were it not so serious.