Today’s New York Times reports that the New York Police Department engaged in a widespread spying program for almost a year prior to the 2004 Republican Convention:

For at least a year before the 2004 Republican National Convention, teams of undercover New York City police officers traveled to cities across the country, Canada and Europe to conduct covert observations of people who planned to protest at the convention, according to police records and interviews.

From Albuquerque to Montreal, San Francisco to Miami, undercover New York police officers attended meetings of political groups, posing as sympathizers or fellow activists, the records show.

They made friends, shared meals, swapped e-mail messages and then filed daily reports with the department’s Intelligence Division. Other investigators mined Internet sites and chat rooms.

From these operations, run by the department’s “R.N.C. Intelligence Squad,” the police identified a handful of groups and individuals who expressed interest in creating havoc during the convention, as well as some who used Web sites to urge or predict violence.

But potential troublemakers were hardly the only ones to end up in the files. In hundreds of reports stamped “N.Y.P.D. Secret,” the Intelligence Division chronicled the views and plans of people who had no apparent intention of breaking the law, the records show.

These included members of street theater companies, church groups and antiwar organizations, as well as environmentalists and people opposed to the death penalty, globalization and other government policies. Three New York City elected officials were cited in the reports.

This isn’t a new tactic for the NYPD, they used similar tactics back in the 1960s when they inflitrated anti-war and civil rights organizations and, in some cases, clearly provoked those groups into engaging in illegal activity that would then results in arrests.

There are several problems with what the police did here, but potentially the most damaging is the manner in which this type of surveillance can have a chilling effect on political speech and political action. If you oppose the powers-that-be and know that there’s a possibility that one of the people posing as your members may actually be a police informant, then it’s likely that you’ll be careful about what you say and when you say it.

Sounds like a perfect monitoring system for Big Brother to me.