Spying on Nuns, Bike Lane Activists, and Other Security Threats

Monday, January 05, 2009
Worth Spying On?
From 2005 through late 2007, Maryland Police carried out extensive surveillance on a wide range of range of animal and human rights activist groups, including advocates of establishing bike lanes. The program began when Major Jack Simpson, a field commander in Special Operations, requested a report about possible death penalty protests for two upcoming executions. Lt. Greg Mazzella of the intelligence division ordered a new detective to go undercover, “To assess the threat to public safety by various protest groups, and identify high threat groups for continued monitoring.” The program quickly expanded, and abuse of privacy expanded with it: an undercover agent infiltrated PETA meetings to gain information about a rumored plan to liberate mistreated chickens at a nearby processing plant; investigators listed “civil rights” as a suspicious activity that Amnesty International might be involved in; two Catholic nuns in Baltimore were monitored due to their pacifist beliefs. Police investigators apparently labeled the activists as terrorists in their database accidentally, because their software didn’t contain a “pacifist nun” category. The data was then aggregated into the national system, where other agencies could cross-check names against their own databases. The surveillance remained passive, and none of the subjects of study had limits imposed on their travel or daily life. 
More Groups Than Thought Monitored in Police Spying (by Lisa Rein and Josh White, Washington Post)
Spying on Pacifists, Environmentalists and Nuns (by Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times)


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