TrapWire is a private security company, founded by several former CIA employees after 9/11, that claims its surveillance software (also called TrapWire) can find terrorist attacks in the planning stage.
According to the TrapWire website, the software is supposed to "enhance the ability of participants to identify, record, and analyze suspicious behavior, particularly behavior associated with pre-attack surveillance activities."
TrapWire claims its software uses mathematical algorithms to detect suspicious patterns of behavior.
The website also says the TrapWire software is used in 65 locations around the US, including the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in Washington D.C.
The news website Al Jazeera has obtained thousands of documents from the MPD, via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, that show how TrapWire is used by D.C. police.
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Al Jazeera reports that "suspicious activity" reports filed by citizens on other people are added to TrapWire's huge counterterrorism database, which is supposed to identify threat patterns.
This "suspicious activity" includes people taking pictures (a common tourist activity in Washington D.C.), receiving "weird phone calls" and riding the D.C. subway while wearing back packs.
The "suspicious people" are often described as "Middle Eastern," even though most terrorist attacks in the US have been committed by white males.
One suspicious activity report read:
Mrs. (redacted), a concerned citizen reports that a Middle Eastern male was walking back and forth on the train looking out the doors and checking his watch. He exited at Arlington Metro station (blue line). That male was described as 5'4", med 20s, 170 lbs, medium complexion last seen wearing a blue long sleeve shirt, black pants and glasses carrying a olive back pack with black stripes.
Another suspicious report stated:
Two males who appear to be of Arab decent on the tressel bridge near New York and Florida Avenue and near the train tracks taking photographs in the direction of the capital.
Another report said:
(A taxi driver) wearing a white (Middle Eastern-style gown) which was unusual for this type of weather and his demeanor seem to be unusual.
“These programs are not only wasteful and harmful, they are insulting to our intelligence,” Kade Crockford, of the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts, told Al Jazeera.
“Americans aren’t stupid. If we see someone with a gun or a knife, we will call the police,” added Crockford. “The notion that we should report to the police people taking photographs and notes or ‘acting suspicious’ runs contrary to every democratic value this nation claims to defend.”
Michael Price, of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, questioned why a private company is doing the job of law enforcement and government.
“The concerning part to me is the suspicious-activity reporting itself,” stated Price. “There is a lot of useless, innocuous information in these suspicious-activity reports that has little to do with terrorism. The idea that this is all being done through a private company that analyzes and keeps copies of this data and doing God knows what with it is troubling."
"Distributing personally identifiable information to a private company is something that is usually forbidden," said Price. "This raises all sorts of civil-liberties, First Amendment and legal concerns.”