By Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman— Uncle Sam wants you. He wants you to spy on your customers, to spy on your co-workers, and perhaps even to spy on your neighbors and family members.
The Terrorist Information and Prevention System, benignly dubbed “TIPS”, represents the latest Bush-Ashcroft assault on civil liberties and just plain civility. Under the TIPS plan being set up by the Justice Department, the government later this summer will start recruiting millions of citizen-volunteers across the country to become domestic spies for the federal government.
If the plan goes into effect, UPS drivers, movers, repair personnel, and amateur busybodies may be snooping around your home or office for signs of “suspicious” activity. And it gets worse. “All it will take,” explains the FBI, “is a telephone or access to the Internet as tips can be reported on the toll-free hotline or online.” Once received, information may be entered into government databases and will be “referred electronically” to local law-enforcement authorities.
You can rest assured that means that thousands of Americans can expect to find the police knocking on their doors -- or breaking them down -- simply because a person with no law-enforcement training grew suspicious about something they thought they saw or heard. And tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans, particularly those in immigrant communities, may find their good names in some terrorist database that will be used for who knows what purposes.
If the prospect of this domestic surveillance program leaves you a little uneasy, you are not alone. Even conservative Republicans are outraged by the proposal, and the House of Representatives has voted to block it. In response to widespread criticism, the Justice Department has been backpedaling in recent weeks about certain important details of the program, but Attorney General Ashcroft apparently insists on moving forward with TIPS.
No one suggests that a person who has reason to believe that someone is connected to terrorist activity should not report that to law enforcement. People report suspected criminal activity to the police all the time; their willingness to do so is commendable and should, of course, extend to suspected terrorist activity.
It is an entirely different matter, however, for the federal government to establish a cadre of private citizens for the specific purpose of spying on the rest of us, particularly when that spying may extend to the home. And the Justice Department’s new suggestion that the TIPS hotline number will “not be shared” with certain types of workers with access to homes is meaningless, as the number of course will be widely disseminated by the press and members of the public.
The attacks of September 11th have placed enormous strains on our society and on our government. Unfortunately, the compelling need for enhanced security has spawned many proposals by the Bush Administration that offer few security benefits but strike at some of our most cherished values. TIPS is one of those proposals and should be abandoned.
Dunn is the Associate Legal Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Lieberman is the NYCLU’s Executive Director.