Uncle Sam’s Databases of Suspicion: A Shadow Form of National ID

Hina Shamsi and Mathew Harwood

It began with an unexpected rapping on the front door.

When Wiley Gill opened up, no one was there. Suddenly, two police officers appeared, their guns drawn, yelling, “Chico Police Department.”

“I had tunnel vision,” Gill said, “The only thing I could see was their guns.”

After telling him to step outside with his hands in the air, the officers lowered their guns and explained. They had received a report — later determined to be unfounded — that a suspect in a domestic disturbance had fled into Gill’s house. The police officers asked the then-26-year-old if one of them could do a sweep of the premises. Afraid and feeling he had no alternative, Gill agreed. One officer remained with him, while the other conducted the search. After that they took down Gill’s identification information. Then they were gone — but not out of his life.

Instead, Gill became the subject of a “suspicious activity report,” or SAR, which police officers fill out when they believe they’re encountering a person or situation that “reasonably” might be connected in some way to terrorism. The one-page report, filed shortly after the May 2012 incident, offered no hint of terrorism. It did, however, suggest that the two officers had focused on Gill’s religion, noting that his “full conversion to Islam as a young [white male] and pious demeanor is [sic] rare.”

The report also indicated that the officer who entered the house had looked at Gill’s computer screen and recalled something “similar to ‘Games that fly under the radar’” on it. According to the SAR, this meant Gill “had potential access to flight simulators via the Internet.” Gill suspects that he was probably looking at a website about video games. The SAR also noted earlier police encounters with Gill, in his mosque and on the street. It recorded his “full beard and traditional garb” and claimed that he avoided “eye contact.”

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