Spies Among Us
Despite a troubled history, police across the nation are keeping tabs on ordinary Americans
Such problems threaten to grow as law enforcement expands its reach with increased intelligence and computing power. The key to avoiding trouble, say experts, is ensuring that concerns over privacy and civil liberties are dealt with head-on. In a recent advisory aimed at police intelligence units, the Department of Justice stressed that success in safeguarding civil liberties "depends on appointing a high-level member of your agency to champion the initiative." But that message apparently hasn't gotten through, judging from the response at a conference sponsored by the Justice Department a few weeks back on information sharing. Among the crowd of some 200 local and state officials were intelligence officers, database managers, and chiefs of police. When a speaker asked who in the audience was working with privacy officials, not a single hand went up.
As Washington doles out millions of dollars for police intelligence, its reliance on voluntary guidelines may backfire, warn critics, who worry that abuses could wreck the important work that needs to be done. "We're still diddling around," says police technology expert Wormeli. "We're not setting clear policy on what we put in our databases. Should a patrol officer in Tallahassee be able to look at my credit report? Most people would say, 'Hell, no.'" Current regulations on criminal intelligence, he adds, were written before the computer age. "They were great in their day, but they need to be updated and expanded."
Civil liberties watchdogs like attorney Gutman, meanwhile, want to know how efforts to stop al Qaeda have ended up targeting animal rights advocates, labor leaders, and antiwar protesters. "You've got all this money and all this equipment--you're going to find someone to use it on," he warns. "If there aren't any external checks, there's going to be an inevitable drift toward abuses." But boosters of intelligence-led policing say that today's cops are too smart to repeat mistakes of the old Red Squads. "We're trying to develop policies to build trust and relationships, not spy," says Illinois State Police Deputy Director Kenneth Bouche. "We've learned a better way to do it." Perhaps. But for now, at least, the jury on this case is still out.
With Monica M. Ekman and Angie C. Marek