The LAPD has just released a new Orwellian commercial for iWatch, a program that encourages residents to spy on each other and report any “suspicious behavior” (whatever that means) to the authorities, who we’re assured will sort everything out.
Unsurprisingly, many people are reacting negatively to the ad. Huffington Post commenters call the ad “scary,” “hysterical,” and one individual muses about how long it’s going to take Apple to sue the LAPD for copyright infringement. NBC Los Angeles declares that the LAPD is “creeping out America.”
This isn’t the first time a creepy spying ad has hit the airwaves. A reader informed me that the post-9/11 Australian government formed something called the National Security Hotline, a similar program to iWatch:
These kinds of anonymous hotlines are ripe for abuse, and there exist endless possibilities of innocent citizens being reported by their neighbors for the crime of “Living While Being Arab.”
We all remember the terrible TIPS program, the Bush administration’s “solution” to its own catastrophic intelligence failure that led to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Not that anything was actually wrong with the intelligence. In fact, President Bush received an intelligence briefing a month before 9/11 with the title, “Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S.” that included the warning al Qaeda had been considering ways to hijack American planes. The intelligence itself was just fine, but the hapless Bush administration ignored the warnings.
After the 9/11 attacks, we were told the solution to terrorism was to have citizens spy on each other, and not to, say, elect a competent government. That’s when TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System) was born, an initiative to recruit one million volunteers in 10 cities across the country that encouraged them to report suspicious activity that might be terrorism-related. An investigative political journalist, Ritt Goldstein, observed in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald that TIPS would provide America with a higher percentage of “citizen spies” than the former East Germany had under the notorious Stasi secret police.
An editorial in the Washington Post decried the program:
“Americans should not be subjecting themselves to law enforcement scrutiny merely by having cable lines installed, mail delivered or meters read. Police cannot routinely enter people’s houses without either permission or a warrant. They should not be using utility workers to conduct surveillance they could not lawfully conduct themselves.”
The United States Postal Service stated categorically it would refuse to allow its mailpersons to participate, and the ACLU wasted no time in calling the TIPS program exactly what it was, “a contingent of organized government informants” and “government-sanctioned peeping toms,” and an “end run around the Constitution.”
The Constitution. Remember that thing? The Fourth Amendment guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, and includes the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy. Maybe Americans have gotten so accustomed to the government spying on their phone calls, and indefinitely detaining detainees without trial or presented evidence, that the occasional citizen spying program doesn’t seem unusual to them anymore.
Operation TIPS was officially cancelled in 2002 when the Homeland Security Act was passed by Congress. However, in 2008, the Denver Post reported that 181 individuals, including police officers, paramedics, firefighters, utility workers, and railroad employees had been trained as “Terrorism Liaison Officers” to report suspicious information which could be signs of terrorist activity, a virtually identical TIPS program, and a classic example of “same shit, different toilet.”
Now, the LAPD appears to be implementing a mini-TIPS program. Hopefully, similar outrage from L.A. citizens will lead to the cancellation of iWatch. It’s the job of law enforcement and the government, and not citizens, to police the streets. Citizens are not trained in information-gathering techniques, and there’s a reason law enforcement must obtain warrants before violating an individual’s privacy. Programs like TIPS, or “Terrorism Liaison Officers,” or iWatch are all different names for the same thing: unconstitutional spying.
In an article opposing the TIPS program, Marjorie Cohn, an associate professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, quotes, “Watch out for well-meaning men of zeal,” words penned 74 years ago by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Indeed. Watch out for well-meaning persons of zeal, whether they sit in the Oval Office or in the LAPD headquarters.