The Daily Mail has a story that reminds me of Operation Terrorism Information and Prevention System, the TIPS program proposed by US Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2002 (read more about TIPS after the jump). The Daily Mail reports:
A council is enlisting 2,000 resident spies to report anti-social behaviour by their neighbours, it emerged today.
The recruits, described by town hall chiefs as ‘Neighbourhood Champions’, will pass on evidence of graffiti, fly-tipping, litter and excessive noise.
They could even be trained to report child abuse, domestic violence, racial harassment and other ‘hate crimes’.
The plan is expected to be approved this week by Harrow Council, North-West London.
The borough says the scheme, which has police backing, will increase pride in the community.
But critics today raised fears over civil liberties, warning that it is the latest example of a ‘surveillance society’ that has created an army of ‘citizen snoopers’ acting as the eyes and ears of their town hall. […]
Harrow is the latest London borough to ask residents to report bad behaviour. Islington has been running an environmental watchdog scheme since 2002 – with up to 1,200 recruits including children. Hillingdon claims to have 4,800 volunteers. Harrow’s volunteers will log on to a special website to report suspicions.
In 2002, Attorney General Ashcroft proposed TIPS. BusinessWeek explained, “The government wants your cable guy, meter reader, even your postman to voluntarily report any and all suspicious information about you to a new, central FBI database. […] Let’s be real: Terrorists with half a brain aren’t likely to be outsmarted by the mailman or open the door to have the gas meter read if they have bomb-making material nearby. But ordinary people, who might be reading the Koran, will. The result could be a flood of unsubstantiated and largely irrelevant tips that overwhelm law-enforcement officials already mired in data.”
Reason magazine wrote about how TIPS was “An American Stasi.” The program was surreal, at times. Salon investigated and found out that the TIPS hotline was being routed to the TV program “America’s Most Wanted.”
Here’s a great 2002 editorial by Michele Kayal, a former news editor of the Prague Post, about “The Societal Costs of Surveillance.” Kayal spoke about Ashcroft’s TIPS program. “[S]toking people’s fear to set neighbor upon neighbor, service worker upon client, those who belong against those who don’t, does something more: it erodes the soul of the watcher and the watched, replacing healthy national pride with mute suspicion, breeding insular individuals more concerned with self-preservation than with society at large. Ultimately it creates a climate that is inherently antithetical to security.”
The public and members of Congress decried the program, saying it was a way for the FBI to get into people’s homes without needing to get a warrant and that it would pit neighbor against neighbor.
There were comparisons to the publicly condemned domestic surveillance program of the 1950s and ’60s, COINTELPRO, in which the FBI abused its investigatory powers to harass and disrupt political opponents. Congressional investigations revealed that the FBI built dossiers on groups suspected of having a Communist ideology even though they had not engaged in crimes, including the NAACP, and the agency burglarized political groups to gather data on them.
The Justice Department tweaked the program. “At the outset of the program, the Department of Justice planned to engage the postal and utility industries to participate because their workers maintain regular public routes in the communities they serve, putting them in a unique position to recognize potentially dangerous activity along transportation routes and in public places. […] However, given the concerns raised during the program development phase about safeguarding against all possibilities of invasion of individual privacy, the Department of Justice has decided that the hotline number will not be shared with any workers, including postal and utility workers, whose work puts them in contact with homes and private property,” according to the program’s Fact Sheet, archived here by Politechbot.
But the Department’s changes weren’t enough. The program was explicitly forbidden in the 2002 Homeland Security Act, which said, “Any and all activities of the Federal Government to implement the proposed component program of the Citizen Corps known as Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) are hereby prohibited.”
However, the ghost of TIPS lives on. Last year, the Denver Post reported, “Hundreds of police, firefighters, paramedics and even utility workers have been trained and recently dispatched as ‘Terrorism Liaison Officers’ in Colorado and a handful of other states to hunt for ‘suspicious activity’ — and are reporting their findings into secret government databases.”
“Suspicious activity” is broadly defined in TLO training as behavior that could lead to terrorism: taking photos of no apparent aesthetic value, making measurements or notes, espousing extremist beliefs or conversing in code, according to a draft Department of Justice/Major Cities Chiefs Association document. […]
Civil libertarians questioned why firefighters, paramedics and corporate employees — such as Xcel Energy and railroad officials in Colorado — are drafted into the effort. They say public trust in emergency responders will suffer.