The US Govt Has Records of ‘Suspicious’ Photographers Legally Taking Pictures


Don’t want trouble with the US Government? Then you might want to reconsider photographing anything that might cause suspicion among law enforcement — especially if you’re Middle Eastern or a ‘Chinese national.’ A newly published document has revealed that government agencies have been compiling lists of “suspicious activity” reports, many of which contain records of photographers legally taking pictures of bridges, dams, courthouses, and post offices.

The ACLU got its hands on a document containing roughly 1,800 of these reports, gathered in central California. Among the records are a “Female Subject taking photos of Folsom Post Office” and “a male nonchalantly taking numerous pictures inside a purple line train” in Los Angeles.

Here’s a copy of the published document:

Here’s a sampling of some of the alarming items found in the report:


These reports aren’t just creepy records that are out of sight and mind — some photographers are being harassed as a result of them. In a segment on this story that aired yesterday, NPR cites the case of LA-based freelance photographer Hal Bergman. An enthusiast of photographing industrial locations, bridges, ports, and refineries, Bergman has been stopped numerous times by law enforcement, and has even received visits from FBI agents who asked him if he harbored “any ill will toward the United States of America.”

After reviewing his photo portfolio, however, the feds realized that Bergman’s picture taking posed no threat to national security — but that didn’t stop the feds from calling up on Bergman a year later, investigating yet another report made about him.

So, photographers beware, snap the picture of something too “sensitive,” and your photography could quickly end up as a permanent record somewhere in the “government cloud.”

(via ACLU via NPR via Reddit)

Image credit: Photo Op at Buffalo Bridge by Mr. T in DC

  • Sander-Martijn

    I say the opposite of the last sentence in this article. ALL photographers whether amateur, semi-pro or pro should photograph these things (legally – just don’t tresspass and there’s not much they can do) as often as possible, to make their “data” useless. And follow @danielshenise:disqus advice if you are approached. If we don’t do this then our future as photographers is threatened, the equality we’ve fought for is threatened, and the freedom of all americans is threatened as we move towards a police state. In this case, ignoring this is the best medicine, and I do it daily. Know the laws, know your rights and photograph whatever you want to within that. But in this case I’ll be photographing more things that are on this list even though it’s not my interest. If we can make these subjects popular then the data becomes inherently uselss (and i’m not afraid to say this as I’d be surprised if i’m not already on at least one of their lists).

  • junyo

    What does that have to do with anything? Ah… in other words, what you’re saying is that your party/team is incapable of running the country or respecting basic civil liberties outside of single party rule. Which is understandable since no government in the history of the United States has ever had an opposition party before.

    Oh wait. They all have. Every single one. Only they didn’t spend two terms whining about those main ol’ Repubwicans kicking sand in their face. They went to the opposition, made the best deal they could make, and got on with it. Or they started shooting at each other. So buck up butter cup, and if you think the Republicans are terrorists, let’s light this candle! Political purges up in this muthafokka!! Death to those who disagree with stevedavis!!!

    Here’s a tip, the whole thing is a con, and both parties are basically interchangable with the exception of which chunk of basic freedoms they want to screwing you out of, who they tell you that they’re going to take the money from to give you free stuff, and what issues Team Red and Team Blue has decided to pretend like they’re fighting over in the current news cycle to distract you from the screwing.

  • Sam

    Read 1984 by George Orwell my friend…

  • Joe Barnas

    This guy is a troll, don’t feed him.

  • Joe Barnas

    Very much ironic indeed. Oh really they would impeach him right, cause you know, our government is soooo fair and totally abides by the rules right?

  • Joe Barnas


  • Last Resort

    I know one politician who needs to be removed from office for supporting this treason … Diane Feinstein. I wrote the Margaret Thatcher of the USA and she sent her form letter back defending NSA spying. They know they’re doing the American people wrong and it makes them paranoid.

  • Opinionated_GTA

    The rise of the police state.

  • Turtle

    I’m probably on that list.

  • Bob Waugh

    In 1984, on an Intourist trip round the Cities of Old Russia, we were told by our guide to be careful taking photos. it was forbidden for example to take photos in any railway station “just as it would be in your country”. Confronted by a disbelieving chorus in English, Scottish and Aussie accents, she just shrugged. When we pointed out that US spy satellites could take any photos they wanted of anywhere in the world, she shrugged again. She knew it was nonsense but had to toe the line and say the required words.

    Talking it over among ourselves, we felt it was an symptom of feeling surrounded and under siege by what most folk by 1984 saw as a far more powerful state. The explanation for what is reported here may be different.

  • mthouston

    Why would a “terrorist” waste their time taking pictures of “important” infrastructure, when you can just look them up on google maps? It is amazing how many “sensitive locations” are right there at your fingertips.

  • Doug Tankersley

    When the FBI guy asked me if I ” had anything against the U.S.” I said, “Yes. Are you trying to tell me you don’t?

  • Vin Weathermon

    I have had this happen to me, while photographing planes departing Orange County (John Wayne) airport. It felt like harassment at the time, even though the airport policeman was not thrilled to be doing it. They are TOLD to do this and it is all with the assumption that somehow these photos will help thwart terrorists. I don’t believe that the terrorists need any more photos…they already have everything they need and TIME.

  • D3100

    Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

  • Greg

    About ten years ago, some colleagues of mine from Germany were in Washington DC, spending some time looking at all the historic buildings, etc., taking pictures of public buildings from public sidewalks. They were stopped twice by police, and on one of those occasions were ordered by the police to delete photographs from their digital cameras.

    Land of the free, my foot!

  • Rob Elliott

    this is a reductio ad absurdum, law enforcement is tasked with protecting our rights while also making sure to catch criminals. Some Criminals will take pictures of bridges, subway stations, banks, historic buildings, refineries and various other soft targets. When people see someone doing something that seems unusual at a target that could be the potential target for criminal or terrorist activity they have every reason to report it. There is no data here that Law Enforcement did anything incorrect. And the stories presented by the author are of the FBI doing exactly their job, in the correct way.(mostly the general tact is to be a little hard nosed to throw people off, which is an effective tactic)

    Your suggesting is not only taking a thought to the absurd but it is also not helpful. If one were to do that, then law enforcement would have to go through… millions to billions of bits of data a day rather then 1000 or so a year.

    and if we were to play reductio ad absurdum, why not just low jack every one with always on GPS and then gov’t can track our every movement.

    the issue that people are missing is this document has nothing to do with photography. It has to do with Racial profiling. “ME looking” men bought water and someone reported that as suspicious.

    The two issues here are simple. Racial Profiling, and the Potential for Local Law Enforcement abusing their power. The a third lesser issue is antagonistic photographers that often make the issue worse.

  • Frodo

    How the hell are these files on people even created in the first place. When you are asked for ID, refuse!

  • Gerome

    Don’t they do the same thing in “Communist” China and North Korea? Harass photographers. Here I was thinking the US was the land of the free!

  • Ron

    “land of the free”… that’s just an illusion.

  • Rob Elliott

    Alissa when it comes to that, most western legal systems must make a law that criminalizes something. In the case of photography it isn’t illegal unless a law exist making it so. The mistake you made here was your phrasing, never say what I am doing is perfectly legal, because you will be challenged on it. It’s best to say I’m in a public space I am doing nothing illegal.. or I’m doing nothing against the law.

    That put the onus on them to tell you what law you are breaking. Thus they are the ones that would have to produce the law. If that happens in the future and they are being jerky (don’t do it to someone being nice) Ask the officer politely, “what law exists that says I can’t photograph in public a public space.” If they make up a law, then ask

    “Then I’d be happy to leave as soon as I get your name and badge number for my records” if they give it to you then leave, look into it, and if you wish, file a harassment complaint.

    If they refuse, then refuse to leave without it (politely they will try to antagonize you and make you angry) and if it comes to it let them arrest you (if you are sure you are doing nothing wrong (be damn sure)) and don’t resist in anyway after a polite “for what reason exactly”, do not utter any legal threats or say anything antagonistic, be as polite as you possibly can… If they feel threatened you already know they aren’t good at their job, and are in the wrong, they may try to harm you, or destroy your equipment out of spite or fear.

    You will be held for a short time, but a report must be filed, no charges will be filed and you will be let go in a few hours (usually). At which point you get a copy of the report, and file a complaint and if you really want to go into it take legal action. (one thing to mention being polite, respectful and saying as little as possible will get around most issue, some however will assume you are doing it for the very reason you are, and may try to harass you are much as possible and provoke you in some way. These are bad cops, and if you take this route don’t give in)

    If there is any doubt at all in your mind leave without argument if you are wrong it could not be fun.

  • james

    I hope they told you to straighten out that horizon! ;) Nice shot!

  • Shannon Jacobs

    Sure doesn’t seem that way anymore or did it ever!

  • AJ

    Ok then I wanna know what is not is not sensitive is USA ….

  • The Oracle

    “Please speak clearly when standing near the telescreen.”

  • brian

    Here in South Carolina, it seems whenever I am taking pictures of exteriors of abandoned buildings/churches in rural areas, somebody, I assume not the owner, comes and tells me that I need to leave. Anybody know of a way around this?