Skip to content

Considering Civil Liberties

At the end of a nondescript hallway in a nondescript building in the heart of Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, a tiny office of federal agents works to build a nationwide information-sharing network. They do so in the belief that information collected by local police can be shared with other state and federal law enforcement agencies in an effort to identify and disrupt terrorist plots against the United States, all without violating citizens’ civil liberties or privacy.

Established in March 2010, the Department of Justice’s (DOT) Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative Program Management Office (NSI-PMO) performs two primary duties. The interagency office provides federal standards and training to state and local law enforcement to observe and report suspicious activities indicative of terrorist planning, while helping them implement the standardized business processes necessary to securely share those reports with homeland security stakeholders across all levels of government.

The effort, however, has been met with a cool reception from civil liberties and privacy watchdog groups, who caution that government programs such as these lead the United States further down the path to a surveillance society. “SAR programs increase the probability that innocent people will be stopped by police and have their personal information collected for inclusion in law enforcement and intelligence data bases,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has warned. “They also open the door to racial profiling and other improper police practices by giving police unwarranted discretion to stop people who are not reasonably suspected of wrongdoing.”

While the NSI-PMO’s agents understand the fears associated with this aspect of America’s post-9-11 domestic intelligence architecture, they say that they’re doing everything in their power to prove to the public that they have created a system that respects and values civil liberties and privacy rights.

According to NSI-PMO Director Thomas O’Reilly, all participating sites have to adopt the NSI Privacy Protection Framework prior to gaining access to the Information Sharing Environment (ISE) Shared Space, a secure, federal, distributed IT network devoted to terrorism-related information.

The framework consists of three parts. Before sharing SARs between states, participants must adopt and implement privacy policy plans approved by privacy officers at the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and DOJ. “Nobody participates in the exchange of information across state lines unless they have a privacy policy,” says O’Reilly.