WILL YOUR NEIGHBOR BE SPYING ON YOU? Operation TIPS is a "national system for concerned workers to report suspicious activity."
July 17, 2002
For over 30 years, the Neighborhood Watch program has helped local officials, law enforcement, and citizens protect their communities. The success of this program has been dependant upon the willingness of people to look out for suspicious activity in their neighborhoods and to report that activity to the police.
Since 9/11 the term "suspicious activity" has taken on a whole new meaning. In an effort to expand the traditional role of the Neighborhood Watch program into terrorism watch, President Bush is introducing a new volunteer Citizen Corps program called Operation TIPS - the Terrorism Information and Prevention System. This pilot program is to start next month in ten major cities with the objective of recruiting 1 million people to watch for and report suspicious terrorist activity. TIPS is recruiting those, such as letter carriers, utility employees and truck drivers, whose routines would help them to identify unusual events. The program will give these a formal way to report suspected terrorist activity.
The TIPS website states that, "This broad network of volunteer efforts will harness the power of the American people by relying on their individual skills and interests to prepare local communities to effectively prevent and respond to the threats of terrorism, crime, or any kind of disaster."
TIPS is one prong of President Bush's Citizen Corps program. At the federal level, the government would promote Citizen Corps and develop training standards and materials, as well as provide the finances needed to run the programs. At the state level, a state coordinator will help local governments and community organizations to come together and consider local needs and ways to avoid pitfalls. The effort seeks to place watch-keeping power in the hands of United States citizens - through a federally funded program.
The Justice Department will be the central agency running the TIPS project. When volunteers call in to report suspicious terrorist activity, the Justice Department will enter the information into a central database, which can then be accessed by state and local agencies. Having all the information in one location will make it simpler to correspond related information and to prevent important tips from falling through the cracks.
At the same time, many are concerned with the federal government's collecting a database of information on United States citizens, and the abuse that could come from such a system. There is the possibility that those volunteers who have occupations that allow them to enter homes could be used to spy on people and collect information without a warrant. Others consider that this program could take time and resources away from real threats by wasting them on useless tips. Vigilantism could also be an unwanted result of such participation. According to a 1992 report by Harvard University's Project on Justice, the accuracy of informant reports is problematic, with some informants having embellished the truth, and others suspected of having fabricated their reports.
Some see the voluntary TIPS program as a prelude to something more sinister. The former East German police, the Statsi were famous for their snooping on citizens. When their headquarters were opened up after the fall of the Berlin wall, it revealed a huge catalogue of notes on their citizens that had been taken over the past 40 years.
We the people of the United States should remain aware and ready to alert our local authorities if we notice activity related to terrorism. However, we should avoid supporting government programs that hold databases of notes on American citizens, and that encourage citizens to spy on one another.
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