As part of the war on terrorism, the U.S. government may soon be enlisting people around the country to serve as look outs for suspicious or unusual activity and report what they see to authorities. The program is raising concerns about privacy and whether it would amount to a nationwide network of civilian spies.
It's called the Terrorism Information and Prevention System or TIPS and is designed to make good use of people like truck drivers, mail deliverers, or virtually anyone whose jobs take them into neighborhoods where they would be able to spot suspicious or unusual activities.
But critics worry there's a danger the program could lead to neighbors spying on neighbors or even vigilantism. Would someone, for example, who receives a book in the mail about Osama bin Laden be placed under surveillance if a mailman decides to call the TIPS hot line and report this as suspicious activity?
Rachel King is the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the plan, suspecting the government wants to use it to get around the need for obtaining search warrants.
"There is a difference between people being alert and reporting suspicious packages or activity versus the government establishing a citizens' informant program." Ms. King said. "We don't oppose the first and we do oppose the second."
Even some of the Bush administration's strongest supporters in Congress like Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, question whether this voluntary system will be useful in preventing terrorism or whether it really amounts to a government invitation for neighbors to spy on each other.
"We don't want to see a '1984' Orwellian-type situation here where neighbors are reporting on neighbors," he said. "We want to make sure what this involves is legitimate reporting of real concerns that might involve some terrorist activity."
Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York also participated.
"If someone sees a howitzer in someone's back yard, they should report it," he said. "They should let somebody know. On the other hand, we don't want somebody who's looking at the electric meter to look at the books on the shelf in someone's basement and report it."
Attorney General John Ashcroft calls the voluntary program an important component of homeland defense, necessary at a time when the entire country, he says, remains a target for attack by supporters of Osama bin Laden.
"The American people may be the best law enforcement organization we have because they solve some very important crimes. This is something every citizen can do to make America safer," he said. "The people who are regularly present in our culture in various settings, they see significant anomalies, we want them to be able to have an easy way to report those so that we can take steps."
There's also concern the system could be used to generate files on law-abiding Americans similar to what the FBI did during the civil rights movement of the 1960's.
"We don't want a new database," he said. "I recommended there not be one and I've been assured that we won't have a new database here."
But he can not rule out the possibility that information created by this program could end up in the hands of other government agencies, like the FBI, and perhaps surface during job interviews that require a background check.
Again, Rachel King of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It certainly will end up someplace otherwise why are they bothering to do this?," she asked. "So presumably any piece of law enforcement-related data that concerns terrorism could start with one federal agency and end up at your local police department and you wouldn't know who has it, how it got there and there would be no way to correct it if it was completely inaccurate."
Such issues have raised enough concerns in Congress that there is still a question about whether lawmakers will give the TIPS program final approval. If they do, the program is set to begin on a trial basis next month in ten American cities.