The man from the FBI left his card on James Prigoff's door in Sacramento. When Prigoff, a photographer, returned Agent Ayaz's call, he learned that he had attracted the attention of a terrorism investigator, all for attempting to frame an ideal image of a piece of public art on the other side of the country.
Months earlier, Prigoff had travelled to Boston to photograph the Rainbow Swash, a series of bright, colorful stripes painted on a 140-foot gas storage tank in Dorchester. But two private security guards became agitated and told him – incorrectly – that he was on private property. After some hassle, Prigoff opted to snap the shot from a suboptimal location, into the sunlight.
Now, in August 2004, Ayaz wanted to know if Prigoff had ever been to Boston. The agent had already knocked on his neighbor's door, seeking information. Prigoff explained his Rainbow Swash incident, the only thing that came to mind from Boston that he reasoned could have prompted Ayaz's contact. Nothing further happened. As it happens, the Rainbow Swash is readily visible on Google Images.
But the most likely reason that Ayaz, a federal agent in California attached to a joint terrorism task force, could have known about Prigoff or his Boston trip in the first place is the result of post-9/11 laws intended to help law enforcement connect the metaphorical dots ahead of a terrorist attack. The security guards filed what is known as a suspicious activity report, an account of observed behavior striking the observer as questionable.
Suspicious activity reports – over 35,000 of which have been generated as of 2013, according to the government – go from their locations into terrorism databases like the FBI's eGuardian. There, they are visible not only to federal agents but to state and local police around the country through the Department of Homeland Security's controversial fusion centers. Reports on people like Prigoff reside there for up to 30 years.
Generating them requires observers to have neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion of criminal activity – merely the law enforcement equivalent of the "see something, say something" vigilance mantra post-9/11.
Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/10/civil-liberties-groups-lawsuit-suspicious-activity-database