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Spy on our neighbors? Oh, behave

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


This summer's Austin Powers movie about a goofy spy is about to be overshadowed by an even loonier -- but very real -- vision of 10-million workers snooping and snitching on their neighbors.

Despite growing criticism, the Justice Department is on track to begin its Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or Operation TIPS, later this summer or early in the fall. The program aims to enlist utility workers, truck drivers, letter carriers, ship captains and others whose jobs, the Bush administration says, put them in a "unique position" to see suspicious activity.

Such are the remarkable proposals born of Sept. 11. A year ago, had I called our local utilities and asked, "Hey, are you ready to transform your thousands of meter readers, cable installers, phone repair crews and truck drivers into antiterrorist agents?" I'd be told to go away until I sobered up.

Instead, on Friday, the folks at Verizon, Time Warner, Tampa Electric and other businesses with thousands of workers normally scattered throughout the Tampa Bay area's neighborhoods listened politely, commented on the amazing times we live in, checked in with their bosses and called back.

Answers differed slightly, but here's the typical response: No company's been recruited yet by the government for Operation TIPS. But if Attorney General John Ashcroft, who conjured up this idea, comes calling for workers to watch for and report suspicious actions, area companies most likely will participate.

"Parameters would have to be set, and we would not want any employees jeopardized, but I think we'd be happy to become part of such a program," says Linda Chambers, spokeswoman for the Tampa Bay area's Time Warner cable TV system. "It's a civic kind of responsibility."

Time Warner typically has more than 500 cable installers out in trucks roaming the seven-county area.

Other businesses are even more gung-ho. The Teamsters union wants its thousands of United Parcel Service drivers to sign up as the government's "eyes and ears" for homeland security.

Think James Bond in brown shirt and shorts.

Critics of Operation TIPS, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National League of Cities to conservative House Republican leader Dick Armey, denounce the government plan as Orwellian, intrusive and an assault on personal privacy.

They also worry the reports of suspicious activity called in by potentially millions of workers -- each with his or her own spin on what's suspicious -- will help create a government database that could be used against innocent people.

In defending the plan last week, Ashcroft said TIPS will be less of a database and more of a "clearinghouse for people who think they see something" suspicious.

(This sounds a bit like the government's strategy in the 1980s, aimed at cracking down on money laundering, to require banks to file reports of financial transactions of $10,000 or more. Banks filed so many reports that federal agencies were overwhelmed and required years to catch up.)

So far, the U.S. Postal Service says its 300,000 letter carriers won't participate in TIPS as it has been proposed. But that might change quickly if TIPS gets rejiggered more to the USPS' liking.

At Verizon, the phone giant says it hasn't come up with any formal policy yet should the Justice Department request it to join TIPS. But how will Verizon refuse, if asked?

Tampa Electric already encourages employees out in the communities it serves to participate in its own version of a neighborhood watch. Meter readers who get to know their customers are urged to report unusual activity, such as uncollected mail or newspapers outside the homes of elderly people who normally stay at home.

But what about swapping that benevolent role for the watchdog duty envisioned under Operation TIPS? Tampa Electric hasn't got an official stand on TIPS yet. But it seems ready, if drafted. "I'm sure that as a law-abiding company, we would do whatever is required of us," utility spokesman Ross Bannister says.

Sounds like the spy who came in from the heat.

So how would TIPS work? Participants get an Operation TIPS information decal that includes the toll-free reporting number. The hotline routes incoming calls to the proper local, state or federal law enforcement agency or other responding organizations.

Just remember that the police or FBI need a warrant to search your residence. But all of us are only too happy to let the guy from the phone, cable, electric or gas company into our homes. Once he's inside and thinks he sees something suspicious, you've already given up some of your privacy rights.

If TIPS gathers steam, here are three survival tips.

Be sure to give your letter carrier a bigger tip this year.

Always pay your cable TV bill -- no matter if it's a different price every month.

And never, never say another nasty word again to your electric or phone service rep.

Remember, it's for the good of the country.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

* * *

Operation TIPS will be a national system for reporting suspicious, and potentially terrorist-related activity. The program will involve the millions of American workers who, in the daily course of their work, are in a unique position to see potentially unusual or suspicious activity in public places.

-- from the federal government's www.citizencorps.gov Web site.

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