February 6, 2012
The US government has developed massive surveillance capabilities to monitor communications, travel and financial transactions in this country and abroad. But, even the government cannot monitor everything Americans do—not directly, anyway. Thus, it created the Communities Against Terrorism (CAT) program to enlist your friendly local businesses as spies for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The CAT program, funded by the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training program (SLATT) is described as a “tool to engage members of the local community in the fight against terrorism.” The program interprets “local community” to mean businesses, and only registered businesses may access the program’s flyers listing “potential indicators” of terrorist activity.
Each flyer is designed for a particular kind of business. For example, this list was prepared for owners of internet cafes. Unquestionably, someone planning a terrorist attack has engaged in one or more of the “suspicious” activities on that list. But so, too, have most of the estimated 289 million computer users in this country.
The government’s flyer designates people as suspicious if they “always pay cash” at an internet café. That’s a jaw-dropping assumption considering that we’re talking about businesses that sell $2 cups of joe, not $600 airline tickets. Good luck paying with a credit card for a purchase under $10.
Evidence that one has a “residential based internet provider” (such as Comcast or AOL) is another pretext for government snooping. If your home internet connection is unreliable, if you are on travel, or if you simply relish a good cup of coffee with your internet browsing, you run the risk of acquiring an FBI file. Trying to shield personal information on your computer screen from the prying eyes of others will mark you as a potential terrorist, also.
It is officially creepy to use a café hotspot to download “photos, maps or diagrams” of a stadium, metro rail stop, or any “populated locations.” To be safe, confine your travel plans to the Alaskan tundra. And, should there be another terrorist attack, do not demonstrate any “preoccupation with press coverage” of the attack. Just move along–nothing to see here.
If you engage in these or any other “suspicious” activities listed on CAT flyers, businesses are encouraged to “gather information” about you, including “license plates, vehicle description, names used, languages spoken, ethnicity, etc.” At least 25 CAT flyers, collected by Public Intelligence, are known to exist.
The CAT list of “suspicious” internet café activities suggests appalling ignorance of the ways ordinary Americans use computers. Those who are computerless can become surveillance targets, too, if they own guns or precious metals, store a seven-day supply of food, buy a flashlight, believe in conspiracies or participate in peaceful demonstrations.
The government’s paranoia would be laughable were it not for the potential consequences for citizens who find themselves in its crosshairs. Under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, the government may detain indefinitely any terrorism suspects–including U.S. citizens. And, since the government has created pretexts for arresting virtually anyone, no one is safe.
The consequences for public safety are no less grim. If the FBI cannot distinguish between legitimate computer use and credible evidence of terrorist activities, it cannot zero in on genuine threats. So, what is the purpose of Big Brother and his business partners spying on millions of Americans if it doesn’t make us any safer? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?