How Much to Tip?

An online tool to report suspicious activity anonymously in Colorado raises fears of racial or cultural profiling.

by / January 29, 2007
Colorado has a new tool for reporting suspicious activity online -- a tool that's raising awareness and eyebrows.

Ever since 9/11, the government asked citizens to watch for and report suspicious activities. For the last five years, reporting suspicious activities required, at the very least, picking up the telephone and dialing 911, or in some cases, 311. But on Sept. 11, 2006, a new and little-known agency called the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC) launched an online application to make reporting suspicious activity much easier.

By visiting , residents of Colorado -- or anywhere else -- can file reports on anything that might go bump in the night. Also available on the Web site is an option to upload audio, video and photographic "evidence," along with a written report.

The application is getting attention because it delivers online filings directly to federal and state analysts regardless of agency or jurisdictional turf. The inability or unwillingness among law enforcement agencies to share information has been roundly criticized. This application was built with such criticism in mind, designed to get the right information to authorities who can act on it, if need be.

However, some say the prospect of the online reporting tool is disturbing, especially considering the site allows entirely anonymous reporting.

Answering the Call
The CIAC -- a fusion center designed to share homeland security information among federal, state and local officials -- is an intriguing organization. Trying to figure out who runs it can be a challenge.

On its Web site, the CIAC declares itself part of Colorado's Homeland Security Department, which is actually operated by the Colorado State Patrol, a division of the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

"The way the Colorado Information Analysis Center is organized, it is actually a state function," said State Patrol Sgt. Jack Cowart. "It comes under the Office of Preparedness and Security for the state of Colorado. Currently it is being managed by the Colorado State Patrol, but it's not a state patrol function. It truly is a state function because we realize threats to our security are not necessarily law enforcement threats."

Regardless, the Web site and application are simple. Save for a few news items, a brief frequently asked questions section and a provision to contact 911 for emergencies, the heart of the site is reached by clicking the "Report Suspicious Activity" link.

This takes users to an online form, which first prompts them to note the date, time, location, description and type of incident. Following is a field to attach media files. Suspect and vehicle details are next. Lastly users have the option to fill out a personal information field, or leave it blank if they wish to remain anonymous.

Lance Clem, public information officer of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said the system responds to citizens who had been getting mixed signals about where to report suspicious activity.

"Ever since 9/11 -- and even before that -- we have had calls from citizens who wanted to report something suspicious," Clem said. "In the past, we took [tips] down almost wherever they came in. Sometimes they came in on what's called the Governor's Advocate line to the Department of Public Safety. Sometimes they'd go directly to a law enforcement agency -- they sort of went a number of different directions. I don't think there was any clear direction to citizens about what they could do with a tip like that."

Tip Team
On the surface, there is nothing revolutionary about the application except for what happens when a user clicks "submit." Instead of the tip printing out at the local sheriff's substation, it travels directly to a team of analysts from state, federal and local law enforcement agencies. If
a tip comes from a location outside of Colorado, analysts will shepherd it to the appropriate agency. In total, Clem said there are six analysts, with representation from the FBI.

"This gives us the right channel, directly to the analysts, to provide any kind of tip," he continued. "When the analysts get done with it, when they determine it's a credible tip, they have right next door to them representatives from other federal agencies, and other state and local agencies, and they can just transmit that tip directly to them. It was designed to overcome [interoperability] problems."

The application's simplicity makes the Web site an effective, efficient single point of information for multiple law enforcement agencies. As Cowart pointed out, its simplicity meant the CIAC didn't have to shell out a lot of money to build the application.

"We have a very small budget so we could not have done something if it was expensive," he said. "We had to be creative. We had to find a way to put these technologies together and do something innovative and capable yet on a shoestring. It was meant to do two things: to provide a method for our citizenry and our other state and local agencies to communicate with us, to provide us information if they needed to do that. Secondly we needed a management tool within the CIAC to manage what could be a huge load of information."

Neighborhood Watch
Some folks aren't too keen on the idea that anyone can report anything they want -- and do so anonymously.

Cathryn Hazouri, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, expressed concern the reporting application could encourage undesirable behavior.

"I think the problem this encourages is profiling; you see someone you don't think belongs in your neighborhood so you jump online and say, 'There's a Hispanic-looking person who's not carrying a garden tool in the Broadmore area,'" she said. "Or there's driving while black, driving while Middle Eastern. It just encourages people to profile other people."

Hazouri contends that, at the least, using the phone to report suspicious activity requires a caller to talk to another human being, ensuring a modicum of defense against haphazard or malicious abuse of the system.

Cowart acknowledges that abuses of the system may take place. But, he said, that is the case with reporting tips no matter what the medium.

"Anybody who works in law enforcement realizes an unfortunate downside is you get a lot of crank stuff, it's just the nature of the business," he said. "We take it all seriously to a point. Some of it is obviously not serious. But there are things that could be serious but probably are not. We still take them seriously until we conclude that they are not [a threat]."

But for Hazouri, the worst part is not that the system is vulnerable to abuse; it's the potential for breaking down neighbor relations.

"I think it encourages suspicion, and in its worst form. I think suspicion breeds distrust. It breeds isolation; it breeds those kinds of things that make us less neighborly, that make us less connected with the people around us," she said. "If you have a genuine suspicion, pick up the phone and call somebody."
Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.


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