RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've heard a lot lately about high-tech snooping by the NSA. But the government also engages in less sophisticated, off-line surveillance of some people in the real world - like suspicious activity reports, efforts to collect tips about people's behavior, which the feds have been expanding. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hal Bergman is a freelance photographer in LA. He has a fondness for industrial scenes: bridges, ports, refineries.
HAL BERGMAN: They're large and they're hulking and they're utilitarian; and they look interesting. and they're spewing steam. And I find that visually fascinating.
KASTE: The problem is, Bergman's fascination often raises suspicions. He's routinely challenged by security guards and local cops, even when he's shooting on public property. Most of the time, they buy his explanation but every now and then, they report him to the feds. And once, two FBI agents showed up at his door, wanting to know what he'd been up to at the Port of Los Angeles.
BERGMAN: I show them my portfolio. I show him what I was shooting. I may have shown him the pictures that I shot that day. And after five minutes of this - what felt like a really tense interrogation, they got really friendly. They realized I was harmless.
KASTE: A year later, one of the same agents called him again, following up on yet another report. Bergman said the agent already knew he wasn't a threat, but he said he couldn't close the file until he'd asked Bergman certain questions.
BERGMAN: He said to me, do you hold any ill will toward the United States of America? (Laughter) And I said, no, no, I don't. He says, OK.
KASTE: What a waste of time, says Mike German. He spent 16 years in the FBI.
MIKE GERMAN: This is a system that is dulling the response, rather than helping.
KASTE: Today, German is senior policy counsel at the ACLU, in Washington. His organization has now obtained more than 1,800 of these suspicious-activity reports, gathered in central California. The ACLU got them with public records requests, and it's posting them online today. They're a fun read. You can see all the reports of suspicious people taking pictures of dams and bridges. But there's also the report filed on the two Middle Eastern men who bought $1,700 in cigarettes. There's the Sikh with the suspicious tattoo. And there's the inmate in Sacramento who was caught with a drawing that said, "I Hate America."
GERMAN: What we see here, with these reports, is that they are being based on people's political speech, in some cases; and people's other First Amendment activity, like photography; and often based on their religion.
KASTE: German says this violates a federal regulation that prevents police from sharing derogatory information about people, if that information falls short of a reasonable suspicion of a crime. He says the program dumbs down the very concept of reasonable suspicion.
GERMAN: There are certainly bad people out there who are intending to do harm. But the question shouldn't be, do we respond to every single time somebody says somebody is doing something wrong; or do we actually triage our work, somehow, based on evidence.
KASTE: The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative is led by the Justice Department. NPR tried - without success - to talk to them about the program and the ACLU's criticisms. Last March, the General Accounting Office faulted the program for not being able to track its own effectiveness.
Meanwhile, the system is growing - fast. The GAO says 53 federal agencies now participate, in addition to the regional fusion centers where the information is collected. And it all leaves photographer Hal Bergman wondering what they're doing with the reports on him.
BERGMAN: Am I going to have problems at the border? Are they going to take my laptop when I come back in the country? You know, it makes me nervous that I'm not committing a crime and that the government is building records on, you know - on what I'm up to.
He says it's a little like middle school, when you're left wondering what it is that they're putting on your permanent record.
KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.