Saturday, March 05, 2011

San Jose Arab American sues FBI over GPS

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Yasir Afifi says the tracking device was found during an oil change.

A 20-year-old Arab American from San Jose sued the FBI on Wednesday for secretly attaching a tracking device to his car and threatening him with federal charges when he refused to give it back.

Yasir Afifi is not politically active, has no connection to terrorist groups and has no idea why the FBI put him under surveillance, said attorney Zahra Billoo of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which filed the lawsuit. She said the FBI has disclosed some of the contents of its file on Afifi but has not said why he is being monitored.

"He fit the profile - an Arab American male, young, lives by himself, travels frequently to the Middle East to visit his family" in Egypt, Billoo said. She said Afifi is stopped and questioned every time he returns to the United States.

The suit seeks damages, an end to the surveillance and an order forbidding the FBI to place a global positioning service, or GPS, tracking device on a vehicle without a search warrant.

FBI representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

Afifi, a college student in Santa Clara who also works as a salesman, said he took his car to a garage for an oil change on Oct. 3 and saw the device attached by magnets between the right rear wheel and the exhaust. He said he was afraid it was a pipe bomb, but learned it was a GPS tracker after posting pictures on the Internet.

Two days later, he said, three cars followed him when he drove from his apartment, and a man who identified himself as an FBI agent questioned him about the device. When he refused to retrieve it, he said, the agent threatened him with federal charges, and other agents asked him if he was a national security threat and inquired about a trip he was planning the following week.

Afifi said he eventually agreed to return the device, and another agent who accompanied him to the apartment congratulated him on his new job, information Afifi had not volunteered. He said an FBI report he obtained in January under the Freedom of Information Act contained statements he had made to the news media about the incident.

The FBI file also identifies people he contacted, hospitals he went to, organizations he belonged to, religious services he attended and restaurants he visited with friends and family, Afifi said.

Billoo said two prospective employers declined to hire Afifi after reading about his FBI encounter. The suit alleges that the surveillance and record-keeping were both illegal and were conducted under guidelines approved by FBI Director Robert Mueller.

The suit was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., where appellate rulings have required police to get a warrant before installing a GPS device - in contrast to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which has found no invasion of privacy when the device is attached in a public place.

E-mail Bob Egelko at

This article appeared on page C - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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