Exclusive: How DC police use citizens as spies

Al Jazeera investigates shadowy surveillance technology revealed in correspondence between law enforcement and TrapWire

The newly revealed documents shed light on surveillance software used to monitor individuals.
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Of the dozens of private intelligence corporations that have emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, one firm has been singled out for particular scrutiny: TrapWire.

The Virginia-based spy outfit founded by several former CIA employees a decade ago developed, it says, surveillance software that can root out terrorist attacks while they are in the planning stage.

The company, formerly known as Abraxas Corp., markets its technology to local law enforcement, federal agencies and private corporations. TrapWire has been installed in 65 locations around the United States, according to the company’s website, including Washington, D.C., where it is being used by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

But TrapWire has become a lightning rod for civil libertarian groups and other critics who see its technology — and law enforcement’s hunger for it — as a symptom of a creeping surveillance state in the age of the so-called war on terrorism. That feeling has only been strengthened in the wake of the leaks by Edward Snowden, the former contractor with the National Security Agency who revealed details of mass data trawling by U.S. spy agencies and those of other countries.

Now Al Jazeera has obtained more than 2,000 pages of documents from the MPD in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the department that casts a rare spotlight into how TrapWire’s technology has been used by law enforcement (read the original contract) and the sorts of activities that are being picked up by the system.

The revelations are likely to reinforce many critics’ concerns that it represents an encroachment on civil liberties. Though most of the documents simply show a log of reports about possibly suspicious activities — like “probing” — some emails in the haul of MPD documents give details on which pieces of information were deemed worthy of follow-up.

In Washington, TrapWire processes so-called suspicious activity reports filed by members of the community and adds them to its massive national counterterrorism database, attempting to identify threat patterns. However, some observers say much of the behavior can be explained as ordinary members of the public — or tourists with cameras — simply going about their business in a busy major city.

Insulting ‘our intelligence’

In one D.C. case, a TrapWire report dubbed “slightly suspicious” and processed from a member of the community contained information about a 56- to 60-year-old male taking photographs with his cellphone camera. Another report submitted read, “Both my girlfriend’s and I’s phone received a weird call.”

“These programs are not only wasteful and harmful, they are insulting to our intelligence,” said Kade Crockford, the director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts, who reviewed the MPD’s TrapWire documents obtained by Al Jazeera.

“Americans aren’t stupid. If we see someone with a gun or a knife, we will call the police,” Crockford said. “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.

“It’s a waste of public resources, and it promotes a culture of fear, which is corrosive to democracy and an open society.”

There also seemed, in some reports, to be an element of racial profiling (read the original documents). For example, on Sept. 8, 2011, TrapWire processed a report that 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.”

On Sept. 9, 2011, a “moderately suspicious” report (read the original documents) that also led to further investigation was submitted in which a citizen described “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.”

A citizen reported on Sept. 8, 2011, that a taxi driver at Union Station was “wearing a white (Middle Eastern-style gown) which was unusual for this type of weather” and his “demeanor seem to be unusual.” 

It’s a waste of public resources, and it promotes a culture of fear, which is corrosive to democracy and an open society.

Kade Crockford, director, Technology for Liberty

American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts

TrapWire says it uses complicated mathematical algorithms that allow digital surveillance systems to detect suspicious patterns of behavior, possibly linking multiple reports to identify serious threats. But some critics have questioned its effectiveness. TrapWire detected only one threat pattern in the thousands of pages of suspicious-activity reports from 2011 to 2013 obtained by Al Jazeera. A person was taking pictures at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and two people separately reported the incident as suspicious.

Michael Price, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program who reviewed the same MPD TrapWire documents, agrees that the system may not be effective.

“The concerning part to me is the suspicious-activity reporting itself,” he said. “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. This raises all sorts of civil-liberties, First Amendment and legal concerns.”

Price noted that Washington is a tourist destination and people naturally will photograph landmarks and talk about how the government works. But now acting like a tourist could be considered suspicious behavior and could land someone in a terrorism database. But it is not just behavior in public that can bring people to the attention of TrapWire and D.C. police.

One video gamer ended up in TrapWire (read the original documents) and the FBI’s terrorism database after apparent threats he made while he was playing “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2” that a member of the community reported.

In one email — dated last January and obtained by Al Jazeera — Sgt. James Black of the MPD’s Homeland Security Bureau described how five “large members” of the department’s Robbery Intervention Program (RIP) and “(his) own online game expert” showed up at the home of a gamer whose name is redacted in the documents. The gamer had apparently been reported by a member of the public after making some sort of threat while playing on his computer.

The gamer “was shaking, sweating, and looking like a deer in headlights the whole time we had our interview,” Black wrote in a Jan. 18, 2013, email shared with FBI agents.

He described the family of the man as “devoutly, overtly Christian” and went on to detail the impact of the visit.

“When I explained why we were here and about the threats, his mother and sister nearly swooned and he was shaking pretty badly,” he wrote.

The nature of the alleged threats made by the gamer was redacted from Black’s summary of the incident. In his email Black eventually said the individual posed “ZERO” threat. However, Washington police personnel were instructed to add Black’s report to TrapWire.

Police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said the department continues to use TrapWire’s technology. But at one point, it seemed the department was ready to give up on TrapWire because of its poor analytic capabilities, which one department official described in an April 4, 2012, email obtained by Al Jazeera as “pretty bad.”

However, Crump did not provide responses to specific questions about racial profiling.

TrapWire did not respond to emails or phone calls seeking comment about the information in the suspicious-activity reports it has collected. 

Below, read the Jan. 28, 2013, email, written by Sgt. James Black of the MPD's Homeland Security Bureau and shared with FBI agents, detailing how a video gamer ended up in the TrapWire and the FBI terrorism database because of apparent threats he made while playing “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.” Black concluded that the gamer did not pose a threat, but he was still added to the terrorism database.


Read the entire set of more than 2,000 pages from the Metropolitan Police Department: Part 1 | Part 2.

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