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

  • Evan Skuthorpe

    Land of the free…

  • Adam Cross

    you just have to laugh, don’t you? It’s all so maddeningly ridiculous

  • Oh_photog

    home of the guilty.

  • Ricky J. Carrasco

    In 1984, the government maintains its power by continuously creating an emergency or “revolutionary” state, by maintaining the spector of a dire villain always looking to overthrow the government, and therefore the “safety” and “freedoms” of the people. It’s funny/ironic that more than a decade after 9/11 and years after the death of our “Goldstein”, aka Osama, the US government is dutifully maintaining its war against the terrorists, while we pay the price, both with our freedoms AND in our pocketbook so we can fund agencies like the NSA and bigger military. Sad.

  • Tim

    `who asked him if he harbored “any ill will toward the United States of America.”’

    To which the answer is “not until just now”

  • Ryan

    “Bush was a Rambo. Rambo knew he was over the line and didn’t care. But in the end he knew his rampages had a limit. Obama is worse. He’s a Walter White who refuses to acknowledge he’s gone rogue. He’ll always be the good guy, in his own head. And that’s even more dangerous.”

  • junyo

    No, what’s maddening is the constant demand for money to fund your own oppression, and a nation full of simps that keeps electing the idiots who order it.

    To Keep Us Safe, For The Children.

  • K S B

    What the eff does this have anything to do with Bush and Obama? Keep your political leanings/agenda out of this, please.

  • Ryan

    Politics run the government idiot. My “leanings” were never discussed. All I did was post a quote. The way you interrupted it was a great display of your ignorance.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    “Young male spotted taking pictures of infrastructure without any regard to the rule of thirds, golden ratio, etc. Wide angle lens in use exhibited too much distortion which makes it unsuitable for professional architectural photography.

    Flickr account is currently being monitored for other possible violations.”

  • MarkRogers77

    `who asked him if he harbored “any ill will toward the United States of America.”’

    If you did would you really answer “yes”? Would anybody really be that dumb?
    From a investigative point of view, data like this could prove useful in an after the fact investigation into a terrorist incident. Of course everybody having gps locators implanted in everyones skulls so you had a record of where everyone has ever been would be even better.
    The latter is obviously not acceptable but where does the line get drawn between no data at all and too much data? Who gets to choose where the line is? and will the public be told where the line is?

  • Alissa Pagels

    I was told by police here in Illinois that I was put on the “homeland security watchlist” for photographing for a class project. I have also been harassed by police in Chicago for taking perfectly legal photos in PUBLIC space on a PUBLIC street. She tried to arrest me, and when I told her what I was doing was perfectly legal she said “show me the law.” As if I carry a book of laws around with me!?!? There weren’t even any bridges or power plants around! I wish I had some sort of handy list I could bring with my in my camera bag.

  • lidocaineus

    You can. It’s right here, in handy printable PDF form:

  • notkalvin

    With all of the times I’ve been stopped and questioned by homeland security, private security, and border patrol around the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, they must have a book on me and my wife.

  • Leonardo Abreu

    Thank you!

  • Rob Elliott

    So the police and FBI report things that they are told to look out for, it is all properly documented, and paper trails exist. Due diligence is followed and no one has to do anything but answer a few questions to rule them out.

    The key part is Due diligence being followed, the above is only an issue if it isn’t. In the case of the FBI that isn’t harassment that is them following up a report, and doing their job. The information was provided and they went on their way. That is a good thing, they are trying to prevent bad stuff from happening.. and one person is photographing a lot of things many wouldn’t… the brings about concerns. They get looked at, followed up, and 99% I’m sure are harmless.

    The only time this is an issue is if police detain you, or without following up label a security risk that might come up in air travel or security checks.

  • Mauricio Schneider

    I would totally put you in my watchlist as well.

  • Mauricio Schneider

    That’s a great PDF! Most likely doesn’t apply here in my country, but if I ever go again to the states again I’ll print it and bring it with me just in case :).

  • Terry

    These are all great guidelines, but the cowboy cop on the street is going to find something to charge you with if he feels like you’re being a PITA. Many of them have a motto — “we throw them in (jail) the courts can throw it out.” The best thing you can do is smile, be super polite, comply if possible and be sure to ask their name and badge number if any threats are made. NEVER get an attitude — you will lose (at that moment). Now, if you want to become a martyr just give the cop some attitude. If you go that way I hope you enjoy the taste of car hood.

  • lidocaineus

    Of course. For the best results, you should always be respectful, but also be aware of what your rights are. You should never have to stop doing what you’re doing if you’re within the law, and if you DO get wrongfully arrested, you have a whole slew of ways to get justice.

    Also there’s nothing in the law that says you have to be nice to the officer. While there are numerous times when mouthing off leads to something an officer can use against you and it’s better to simply stay silent, you are by no means forced to act that way (it usually plays out better for everyone if you are, however). The best ways to handle confrontational issues is to know your rights and stay as silent as possible, as that gives them no reason to detain you unless they actually witness you breaking a law.

  • Kiltedbear

    No, what’s maddening is the disregard for the need for security. I live near an air force base. I have thought about taking pictures of the planes as they fly by as they fly quite low. I in NO WAY expect to NOT ever be questioned or noted by certain authorities and I believe that is right and proper. Any sort of infrastructure is a target for terrorism. They have a responsibility to protect us from terrorism. If you don’t see that reality then you are living in a dream world.

  • Courtney Navey

    Nothing says freedom like Big Brother…

  • Kiltedbear

    WTH are you talking about? Iraq and Afghanistan are over. The limited strike to get Bin Laden succeeded. Obama pressed until Putin agreed to terms and help get chemical weapons out of Syria all without firing a single shot. What “war” are you talking about, seriously?

  • whisky

    i notice they did’t report whether suspects were using a conspicuous film camera, a DSLR, or google glasses. also, to be thoroughly consistent, why not record other suspicious activities — like someone oil painting a high value target on canvas, or an author writing down a few observations about it at the local coffee shop?

    how long before the “good citizens” call the local terrorist hotline to turn ourselves in? =:-O

  • Kiltedbear

    Wow… If Obama was “rogue”, they would impeach him. The GOP is frothing at the mouth to impeach him, but they don’t have grounds. That just goes to show your great ignorance *AND* delusion.

  • Ryan

    lol – the irony in your reply.

  • Kiltedbear

    Well said. Much better spoken than some of the posts up above by people living in a dreamland of paranoia…but then we get told we’re the idiots if we do our due diligence and account for ourselves and see no major problem with the government doing it’s job in protecting us.

    Side note PETAPIXEL, I’d recommend avoiding leaving comments open on a topic as apparently controversial as this.

  • Kiltedbear

    Infrastructure is a prime target for terrorism. I would be worried if they weren’t doing this.

    I live near an air force base and I have thought about taking pictures of the planes as they fly overhead fairly low, but I fully EXPECT to be stopped and questioned at some point. They are only transport planes from this airport, but that’s a moot point.

  • faloc

    wtf…. I dont think I even want to go to the US anymore since its turning into a dictatorship… it feels like.. well Im up for abolishing all governments!

  • faloc

    I think the US is a big target for all terrorists…because they keep pointing their nose into other countries business (playing world police) and start invading those countries… so other countries strikes back, its called “An eye for an eye or tit for tat”

  • junyo

    Dude, be my guess to try and get anything that can bring down a military plane anywhere near where it might actually be effective without getting a lot of new friends with guns and a free Cuban vacation. Seriously not the same thing. When they actually care, because it’s an actual potential threat, the response isn’t letting you drive home and visiting you later.

    So, the vast amount of counterterrorism training that comes from living near an air force base notwithstanding, are terrorist really looking to blow up random bridges in East Podunk Kansas? Whogivesacrapsburg New Jersey? And if any of them were actually looking to blow something up, and the area is publically accessible, they’d have to be the dumbest terrorists in the word to stand around taking pictures of if with a fancy camera, when they could just snap a picture with a phone as they drove by, with no one the wiser. Or just make a bomb and go try to blow up the bridge? So on the scale of possible threats, the dude standing there in the open ‘suspiciously’ taking pictures is probably the lowest probablity threat, and talking to him (and maintaining a permanent file on him) the most wasteful expenditure of security resources imaginable. It’s theater, to make idiots feel safer.

    Beyond that, the point of the whole thing; the government, the Constitution, the lofty words, is the freedom of the individual to do what he wills as long as he’s harming no one else. It’s not to be wrapped in a cocoon of security. Because there is no possibility of full and complete security in a vaguely free society. So in accepting any and every action of the government because they’re ‘protecting’ you, without ever questioning the risk/benefit of that protection you’re basically accepting the line that every dictator back to Julius Caesar used to usurp representative government. “If you just give me more power, I’ll keep you safe.”

  • junyo

    Don’t be that guy.

  • Mauricio Schneider

    I know, I’m sorry, just couldn’t help myself :/

  • Steve Grob

    Cool. We don’t want you here anyway.

  • Happy_Tinfoil_Cat

    I think I need to print and carry a copy of the Constitution for next time I get stopped and searched for photographing a statue.

  • Woody ONeal

    Thank goodness we had cameras on those U-2 spy planes. I’d hate to see the state of world affairs if the Cuban missile crisis wasn’t DIRECTLY AVERTED BY THE USE OF PHOTOGRAPHY.

  • Evan Skuthorpe

    “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you” – Nirvana

  • Evan Skuthorpe

    Are you kidding!? Obama and America were played by Putin and Syria. The US has lost it’s place and it’s now on a downwards slope.

  • Rabi Abonour

    As you say, things just play out easier if you’re polite (but firm). You won’t necessarily get in any legal trouble for giving the cop attitude, but you might get hauled to jail. Even if you get released immediately, it’s still going to be a major pain.

  • Heather Morgan

    Wonder if I’m on here. I was harassed for taking a long exposure at an oil refinery. I wasn’t on the property.

  • William Wolffe

    About time the photo-police did something about those damned amateur photographers and their online rampages!

  • Zos Xavius

    Yeah. Resisting arrest. Its what they use when they have nothing on you. Try convincing the judge you weren’t resisting….

  • lidocaineus

    You can only get hit with resisting arrest if the arrest is valid in the first place.

  • Daniel Shenise

    Am I being detained or am I free to go? Words to live by when interacting with cops or anyone in authority. Generally they are just trying to hassle you, and will give up after about 30 minutes of silence following you asking the above question. If necessary, follow up with, I’d like to have an attorney present during all interactions with cops.

    These fishing expeditions are basically “busy work” for cops and federal agents. Just something to do to fill the timecard.

  • TSY87

    hey…. those are all locations near me… i should go take some pictures and see what happens.. (I’m chinese)

  • Rob S

    I work on an Air Force Base and stopped just outside of there to take pictures of the recent “super moon.” (no trees to obstruct low horizon shots) I had just gotten my tripod up and taken my first few pictures when the Security Forces drove up. They walked up with their usual swagger but it disappeared the instant they realized that not only was I not an easy mark I was a very senior officer. “Uh…sir we had a report of…..suspicious activity….just checking it out…..” Yeah move along Gomer Pile and take your lies with you.

    When I was in Afghanistan I had some self important b**ch tell me I couldnt take pictures on the Camp I was on. She went so far as to say cameras were not allowed. I told her to pound sand and if she didnt stop lying I would bring her up on charges. But she couldnt let it go and brought the Camp Commander into it. He told her the same thing. Then she tried to get the intel folks to tell me I couldnt because it was a counter intelligence threat. That was when she found out I was the senior CI officer on the camp.

    People like to make up rules to make themselves fell important.

  • Rob S

    Next time let them arrest you and then file a wrongful arrest suit. Should get you enough for a nice medium format!!

  • ordinal

    Perhaps it would be simpler just to have all cameras upload EXIF, GPS and fingerprint data to government servers whenever a picture is taken. And a register of all camera owners, of course, to tie into that. That would save a lot of law enforcement time and be much more complete.

  • ordinal

    I mean, imagine if somebody took a picture of a plane. Nobody knows what they look like after all.

  • stevedavis

    The irony is that thanks to the fact Republicans in congress won’t fund any actual infrastructure improvement, the terrorists who take down our bridges will be the ones we’ve elected to gerrmandered congressional districts.