Lawsuit Contends National “Suspicious Activity” Database is Way too Broad

Tuesday, July 15, 2014
(graphic: BBC)

Taking photos of public art displays or just being a minority is enough to land an American on the federal government’s watch list for being suspicious, which is now being challenged in court.


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as well as Asian American legal advocates contend the government’s Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program is much too broad, resulting in innocent people being added to the database. The program also sweeps up details about individuals exercising their First Amendment rights, such as taking photos in public. Others have done nothing except be a member of certain ethnic groups.

Filed by five individual plaintiffs, the case is being aided by the ACLU, Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Asian Law Caucus, and the law firm Bingham McCutchen.


The plaintiffs are:

·         James Prigoff, who made the list by photographing a famous piece of public art called Rainbow Swash, painted on a natural gas storage tank;

·         Tarik Razak, who was seen “observed surveying entry/exit points” at a California train station and leaving with “a female wearing a white burka head dress.” Razak was going to an unemployment office also located in the station and the woman he was with was his mother;

·         Wiley Gill, a convert to Islam who made the list by playing a flight simulator video game;

·         Aaron Conklin, a graphic artist and amateur photographer who took photos of industrial sites, and;

·         Khaled Ibrahim, an American of Egyptian descent who works for a computer networking company. He was put on the list for trying to buy a large number of computers from Best Buy. The computers were for his company, for which he is the purchasing agent.


In effect since 2008, SAR collects information on any person, even those with no “reasonable suspicion” of committing criminal activity, the lawsuit contends. According to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, there were 27,855 suspicious-activity reports in the national databases by October 2012.


While trying to locate real, potential terrorist threats, the government has broken the law and encouraged racial and religious profiling, the complaint states.


 “The problem with the suspicious-activity reporting program is that it sweeps up innocent Americans who have done nothing more than engage in innocent, everyday activity, like buying laptops or playing video games,” ACLU lawyer Linda Lye told The New York Times. “It encourages racial and religious profiling, and targets constitutionally protected activity like photography.”


Another concern with the program is its retention of information: Once a person lands in the database, their information can remain in it for up to 30 years.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Gill v. DOJ – Challenge to Government's Suspicious Activity Reporting Program (American Civil Liberties Union)

Five Plaintiffs Sue after Being Targeted in US 'Suspicious Activity' Database (by Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian)

Lawsuit Contends Surveillance Database Is Too Lax on Reporting Criteria (by Charlie Savage, New York Times)

The Nationwide SAR Initiative (Nationwide SAR Initiative)

Anti-Terrorism Reports on Suspicious Activity Posted Online (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)


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