Police in Great Britain’s largest city of London are training thousands of private security guards to be on the lookout for individuals making sketches near buildings, taking photographs and recording video footage, even if they appear to be legitimate tourists, the country’s Guardian newspaper reports.

Using relatively new open-government laws similar to the Freedom of Information Act in the United States, a Guardian reporter learned that authorities have directed as many as 5,000 security guards to report suspicious activity, and the anti-terror campaign “helps explain a number of recent cases in which photographers have been stopped and searched by police … after first being approached by security guards,” according to the paper.

“The person you think is a legitimate tourist may be somebody else!” one document says in bold letters. Police have told artists to stop painting in the street, and a section of Britain’s Terrorism Act, which is not unlike our own Patriot Act, allows officers there to search anyone without suspicion after stopping them in certain areas, the paper says, which has generated concerns about abuse. Amid records turned over to the Guardian, “there is no reference to the legal rights of photographers, or the need to treat members of the public cordially.”

Questioning by security guards twice led an architectural photographer to be detained by police after he was snapping images of a church and later a major square. The incidents are similar to some that have occurred in the United States, including one during 2008 in which a man was arrested while taking photographs of New York’s Penn Station for a contest coordinated by Amtrak.

This month the Associated Press also reported that as part of new government program in the United States officials hope parking and meter attendants will help police keep an eye out for suspicious conduct, like loitering around garages, “asking unusual questions” and taking photographs. It was street vendors in Times Square who alerted police May 1 to smoke pouring from a vehicle that turned out to be an alleged bombing attempt by naturalized U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad.

According to the AP:

The program is part of a larger effort by the government since 9/11 to enlist ordinary people – airline passengers, subway riders, bus drivers, truckers, doormen, building superintendents – to serve as the eyes and ears of law enforcement. [Former FBI agent Jeff] Beatty said the idea is not to turn ordinary people into government agents. ‘You’re not going to be Jack Bauer. You’re not going to be James Bond,’ he said. But he said terror attacks like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people often are preceded by warning signs.

The push in London resembles another project stateside that’s on the verge of going national. The federal government wants police around the country to adopt standards for suspicious activity reporting like those formulated by the Los Angeles Police Department. Officers there are required to fill out a suspicious activity report when they observe one of more than 40 different types of behavior.

Categories include taking photographs or video “with no apparent aesthetic value,” drawing diagrams, or possessing and soliciting weapons and ammunition, which are specifically distinguished in department guidelines from chemical agents and explosives that would undoubtedly cause concern. Outcry from citizens worried that mail carriers and utility workers would become spies and overreact to legal behavior led officials to abandon related past plans for documenting suspicious activities.

While faced with criticism again, such initiatives have nonetheless gained momentum in recent months with less open resistance. A liberal civil liberties advocacy group in Massachusetts released a study earlier this year of the federal government’s plans warning that unreliable data collected from the program could overload intelligence systems with “noise” that didn’t identify terrorist threats.

A commander with the LAPD who helped develop its standards told Congress last year that her department had collected more than 1,300 suspicious activity reports and about 50 of them were sent to terrorism task force members for follow-up. Four arrests had been made. “In my opinion, while the number of investigations and arrests is important, they are almost secondary to a new-found ability to connect events that in the past would have appeared unrelated,” Joan McNamara of the LAPD’s Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau testified to the House Homeland Security Committee.

While detractors are skeptical of some behavior categories police are told to take note of, others listed in LAPD guidelines would seem to make sense for a city considered attractive to terrorists, such as attempts to smuggle contraband through screening checkpoints or acquire hospital x-ray discards that contain radiological material.

Flickr images of London police by Darrell Berry and AleReportage

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.