The murky complexities of gathering security data

September 8, 2011

Posted by Matt Ehling

Yesterday, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and National Public Radio released a detailed story on incident reports gathered by Mall of America security staff. The story sampled a series of such reports, and tracked their dissemination to local and federal law enforcement agencies.

The piece is hosted on a dedicated site, along with extensive interviews regarding the use of law enforcement fusion centers to aggregate and disseminate raw incident data.

The main thrust of the story is to highlight the potentially low threshold for having one’s personal information entered into the world of inter-connected law enforcement data-bases. Several examples are cited, including the story of Minneapolis resident Bobbie Allen, who was questioned by Mall security guards for writing in a notebook while waiting for a lunch companion to arrive. Much of the information gathered by Mall security ended up in a police report that was subsequently filed by the Bloomington police department. Mall security had determined that Allen’s behavior was suspicious, and they called the local police to follow-up. The CIR story notes that Allen was “eventually cleared.”

The most interesting component of the CIR/NPR project is not contained in the text story itself, but in the summary of incident reports hosted elsewhere on the site. These reports were obtained through government data requests, and they paint a picture of the murky complexities involved in securing a high profile, high-traffic facility such as the Mall of America.

The reports are notable for the sheer volume and variety of incidents that they portray. Several reports contain easily identifiable, threatening behavior:

A man asked mall security to search him for a bomb in his stomach. Bloomington Police requested a 72-hour hold on the man.

Others reports document murkier, suspicious activity:

Mall security observed a “Middle Eastern male” wearing a landscaping company uniform and “pretending to be working at the mall.” When the man saw that he was being watched, he walked away and could not be located. Another man was also seen in the same area looking in the flower beds in a similar uniform. He became aware he was watched and “jogged out.” The landscaping company said they were not employees. The men were not found.

Several reports deal with situations in which arrests stemmed directly from questioning and observation by Mall security:

Two men were filming the airport from a mall parking ramp. When questioned, neither could produce valid identification. The Bloomington police, FBI and ICE were called and the men were booked for false information and ICE initiated deportation procedures.

And:

Mall security observed a limousine driving up and down parking lot ramps without parking. When speaking to the driver, they saw a CD ROM on teaching yourself to fly a plane. Bloomington police found an open warrant and arrested the driver. Police found two baggies of suspected marijuana in his pocket.

Still others fall into a gray area whose interpretation can vary broadly, depending on one’s perspective:

A man was taking photos of a parking ramp and planes in flight. When he noticed he was being observed by mall security, he left in a rental vehicle before he could be questioned.

And:

Mall security reported a man using a video recorder “indiscriminately.” Bloomington police checked identification of the man and his friend.

The reports also contain several incidents similar to Bobbie Allen’s, in which Mall security had stopped and questioned individuals based upon what could be considered questionable pretexts. The CIR/NPR story follows a number of these reports into the databases of law enforcement fusion centers.

Large and substantive questions – such as how to separate wheat from chaff in security data – emerge from this cache of reports. These are themes that our society continues to grapple with ten years after 9/11, and they are themes that we will continue to explore on this site.