Government Surveillance Without Suspicion: Watching the Watchers

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Government surveillance of political activists without any suspicion of wrongdoing is unfortunately all too familiar, but recent events and evidence show that the problem is increasingly widespread.  Sparked by a shift in law enforcement practices from criminal prosecution to “intelligence led policing,” this new approach threatens our free speech and privacy rights.  In our state, undercover military personnel have infiltrated local peace groups to prevent the “threat” of demonstrations.  Local police records show that law enforcement collects and shares personal information about “known protesters” – who’ve committed no crimes – with other local and federal agencies, the military, and the private sector.  These activists –many of them teenagers and young adults – now have files accessible by a wide swath of government agencies, simply because they engaged in peaceful protest. 

Institutional checks and balances are needed.  Many surveillance programs lack effective protections for privacy and other civil liberties.  Indiscriminate surveillance can produce a barrage of information that actually makes us less safe by misdirecting precious resources.  After all, it’s hard to stop crime when so much time and money is spent watching innocent people. 

Over the past year, we’ve met with community activists, state legislators and other elected officials, and law enforcement personnel to discuss our concerns. We have testified at state and local public hearings about the need for new rules; our laws must adapt to these new methods.  We have obtained and continue to seek public records about surveillance by local and federal agencies.

To help you see the big picture, we’ve created a new feature on our website highlighting information we’ve obtained so far.  We’ll continue to post updates as we learn more.

The ACLU-WA is working to keep its fingers on the pulse of the surveillance state and ensure that laws and policies are in place to safeguard our civil liberties. Our goal is to make certain that government respects your rights. We want to prevent people from becoming targets based on their political or religious beliefs.  While that may seem simple, government too often fails to honor this basic principle.