The Mall of America is a pretty fantastic mall which many people might feel inclined to photograph or film. I'm not sure about you, but I've not seen an amusement park inside a mall and might indeed snap some shots to share with folks. Yet Mall of America security guards could turn your fun day into a never-ending nightmare by determining your activity is suspicious, you are a potential terrorist, and dumping your name into a counterterrorism database. Investigative reporting posted on America's War Within, proves that over 62% of the suspicious activity reports (SARs) included people who had taken photos or videos at the Mall of America (MOA). Whether MOA overzealous security guards are drunk on power, racists, or simply believe they are fighting terrorism, these SARs surely violate civil rights. Some might call this sort of intrusive security a form of harassment.
If you were surrounded by 6,500-square-feet, four stories, of Lego bricks fashioned into more than 90 large and imaginative Lego creations, would you not be tempted to take photos? There are some Lego fans who would think of Lego Land as a piece of geeky heaven. Instead, thanks to MOA security units, a visit to that Lego paradise could sentence you to years of hell if a SAR is filed for taking photos or videos. Take this SAR for example: "A white male was taking 'numerous photographs' in Lego Land and 'was not shopping or purchasing items' which landed him the subject of a suspicious activity report by the Mall of America's security. Yet Bloomington police viewed the photos and cleared him. He was in the U.S. on a foreign student visa and living in Philadelphia."
Some mall shoppers are hauled down to the basement for questioning, so it does not strike me as one little bit strange for people who are stopped and questioned by MOA security to appear "nervous." In another SAR, one white male "admitted" taking photos, claiming the Mall of America structure photos were for an online photography class. He "appeared to get more nervous as the interview progressed." And who wouldn't be both nervous and somewhat ticked to undergo questioning for taking a photo at a mall that verily shouts "Film me"?
On America's War Within, NPR News Investigations and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) highlight an animation of how two black men were followed by Mall of America security guards for doing nothing more than filming the attractions. MOA guards made notes and mapped the two men's "suspicious activity." The men exited the "Balloon Race" ride, "approached an American girl," videoed the "Log Chute" including the support pillars and their log ride, dared to film the food court in "panoramic shots" which included "the structure above the food court," filmed the "Great Room bridge/fountain area," more panoramic shots including the glass ceiling, filmed more as they strolled through the MOA including the "Ferris Wheel" ride and zoomed in on "structural beams" and HVAC pillars. The report goes on and on, as the men filmed their MOA adventure. Yet this report was then "forwarded to the Bloomington Police Department and obtained by NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting in response to a public records request. Documents show that the incident was also reported to the Minnesota state fusion center and the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force."
There are numerous maps online of Nickelodeon Universe and other MOA attractions, so does that also make those webmasters suspicious as potential terrorists? Yes it's a ridiculous notion, but no more so than what is happening in real-time at MOA. When it comes to filming or photographing the mall structure itself, let's get real. How could you avoid taking photos or filming the glass ceiling or the dreaded support structures when the mall is crammed full? This ranks right up there with the ridiculous you-might-be-a-terrorist-if lists.
According to NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting, ethnicity or race appears to play a part of over 65% of the 125 SARs filed by MOA security. No matter a person's race, is it right for MOA security to stop a person "again for taking photos" and then cite him for "trespass" when the photos are non-threatening? Trespass? It's a mall for pity's sake! A "nervous" man complied with erasing his videotape after being told he was suspected of mapping the mall. An Asian man was accused of taking "unusual photographs" and "using a telephoto lens. The man objected to questioning, feeling 'violated' and 'uncomfortable' and became 'agitated.' Bloomington Police were contacted because of his 'constant nervousness and defensiveness'."
Another man in this mall created for amusement was "wandering around with no purpose." Wow, you mean he was sightseeing in a mall? The horror! Yet another was "not holding his video camera like a typical tourist would." Another 'suspicious' man was "pointing his PDA vertically" and taking photos of a roller coaster.
If you read all 16 pages of summaries from the 125 suspicious activity reports posted on America's War Within, you will be sick! People-watching is also apparently suspicious to mall security since a Hispanic man was stopped because he "appeared to be observing people." MOA security "reviewed his video and found nothing suspicious, but after police were called, he was released since there was no cause for further investigation." Another Hispanic man used his video recorder "indiscriminately" which got his and his friend's IDs checked by police.
In yet another racial profiling SAR: two "East Indian" men "permitted mall security to view their video and photos, which were deemed not suspicious. Mall security called Bloomington police to search their backpacks and request ID, but police said there was no reasonable suspicion for checks, pointing out 'numerous guests that were in the Mall of America with backpacks.'" Thank goodness for a tiny bit of sanity injected by the police.
Many mall visitors delete the photos or videos just to be done with it, and get away from the intrusive MOA security questions, but that won't necessarily keep their names from entering the SAR database. Other times, people will not cooperate with the mall cops but allow the real cops to review the video or photos in order for the mall cops to be told there is nothing suspicious about it.
During one MOA security questioning and reviewing of a video, the man's battery went dead. Yet he went home to get the charger so he could show them. Sure enough, "there was nothing suspicious found after viewing the video." This SAR leaves me asking questions: "Mall security was concerned that a German tour group chaperone's camera had photos of Amsterdam airport security. No information was provided in the police report about why he was stopped."
Another article on how MOA visitors "unknowingly" end up on counterterrorism reports states:
Several people named in the reports learned from journalists that their birth dates, race, names of employers and other personal information were compiled along with surveillance images. One Iranian man, now 62, began passing out during questioning. An Army veteran sobbed in his car after he was questioned for nearly two hours about video he had taken inside the mall.
Filling people with fear and inflicting terror on mall shoppers . . . Who are really the terrorists here?
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Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. Smith has a diverse background in information technology, programming, web development, IT consulting, and information security. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.
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