Watch What You Photograph in Newport Harbor Lest You Wind Up in an Anti-Terror Database

Categories: OC Media
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Perhaps you've had family out from Idaho and taken them to the Newport Harbor area for a Balboa Bar and some sightseeing. Maybe they noticed the automobiles floating on water thanks to the Balboa Ferry and decided to snap some pictures of the scene with a cell phone camera.

Those who take such photos may wind up in a government database tracking suspected terrorists.

The Washington Post uses a similar example in a "Monitoring America" expose on the FBI's information database in this post 9/11 age.

As far as the government is concerned, the person snapping the photo of the ferry could be a sightseer or he/she could be an intelligence-gatherer for a nefarious group planning to blow the thing up. It's better to be safe than Ground Zero, reason the feds, who have made tracking homeland terror threats Job One.

And so, a file is opened on suspicious shooters. As an example, the WaPo focuses on the report taken on a man taking pictures in Newport Harbor one Sunday morning in late September.

Suspicious Activity Report N03821 says a local law enforcement officer observed "a suspicious subject . . . taking photographs of the Orange County Sheriff Department Fire Boat and the Balboa Ferry with a cellular phone camera." The confidential report, marked "For Official Use Only," noted that the subject next made a phone call, walked to his car and returned five minutes later to take more pictures. He was then met by another person, both of whom stood and "observed the boat traffic in the harbor." Next another adult with two small children joined them, and then they all boarded the ferry and crossed the channel.

What becomes of such a report? In this case, a local officer ran the vehicle's license plate number and owner through several crime databases. Though nothing came up, the report was forwarded to the Los Angeles "fusion center" for further investigation.

Authorities would not tell the Post what happened to the suspicious activity report from that point, but reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin write that an officer at the fusion center could dismiss the suspicious activity as harmless or forward the report to the nearest FBI terrorism unit for further investigation.

Reports that reach the unit are immediately entered into the Guardian database, according to the article, which reports the FBI could go on to collect more information. If no connection to terrorism is found, the filed could be marked closed (though the report would remain in the database). If a connection is found, a full-fledged case could begin.

Or, as most often happens, it could make no specific determination, which would mean that Suspicious Activity Report N03821 would sit in limbo for as long as five years, during which time many other pieces of information about the man photographing a boat on a Sunday morning could be added to his file: employment, financial and residential histories; multiple phone numbers; audio files; video from the dashboard-mounted camera in the police cruiser at the harbor where he took pictures; and anything else in government or commercial databases "that adds value," as the FBI agent in charge of the database described it.

Little Brother is watching you, too: the bureau is exploring cross-sharing such information with local law enforcement and mapping all such "suspicious" incidents by jurisdiction.

Some may adhere to the if-you've-done-nothing-wrong-you-have-nothing-to-fear philosophy. But the use--and, more importantly, possible misuse--of such information alarms civil libertarians.

"It opens a door for all kinds of abuses," Michael German, a former FBI agent who now leads the ACLU's campaign on national security and privacy matters, tells the Post. "How do we know there are enough controls?"

The FBI says fear not., that their agents have been trained in privacy rules and the penalties for breaking them.

Such words will warm my heart when I'm rotting in Guantánamo because of hits from my ferry photography, unpaid parking tickets and lunch with friends at the local mosque.


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