The government’s surveillance apparatus continues to focus on communities it regards as problematic, from conservative critics of school boards to progressive protestors of the police, to Americans who are devout Muslims.
A recent report by the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) spotlights the ongoing surveillance of Chicago and Illinois’ Muslim and Arab communities. It reads: “A new analysis of over 200 Illinois and Chicago police documents reveals that Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) have demonstrably criminalized Arabs and Muslims across Illinois under the guise of ‘public safety,’ while vastly expanding local, state, and federal systems of racialized surveillance.” The report was conducted in collaboration with the Policing in Chicago Research Group at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Suspicious Activity Reports are submitted by individuals. These reports form the backbone of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. AAAN has obtained 235 SARs through FOIA requests, and claims the reports rely on and promote racial profiling of the region’s Arab and Muslim community. “See Something, Say Something” is a reasonable reaction to multiplying threats to the homeland. But SARs need proper guardrails. They can trigger FBI investigations and create a culture of fear and suspicion, chilling speech, and suppressing legitimate political activity.
According to the AAAN report, the FOIA requests show that members of the area’s Muslim and Arab communities have been reported for activities such as holding or using cameras or binoculars, speaking in foreign languages, and photographing famous buildings. All this information is received at so-called “fusion centers,” state-owned and operated facilities that serve as focal points in states and major urban areas for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information. The American Civil Liberties Union has called for “cutting off funds to fusion centers that do not have a narrowly tailored law enforcement mission…”
The presence of these fusion centers, and the broader network of surveillance aimed at Illinois’ Arab and Muslim communities, have the potential for mission-creep that should be disquieting to any liberty-loving American.