ACLU Sues US Gov Over Program that Can Mark You as ‘Suspicious’ for Taking Photos in Public


The American Civil Liberties Union is helping four individuals take the United States Government to court over something called the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative.

The program has received wide criticism recently, led in large part by a photographer who made the FBI’s suspicious activity list for taking pictures of a piece of public art called the Rainbow Swash.

The photographer in question is 86-year-old James Prigoff, who stopped to photograph the natural gas tank in Boston upon which the Rainbow Swash is painted about a decade ago. Some months later, his name was on the FBI’s suspicious activity list and there was a federal agent on his doorstep asking questions.

Now Prigoff and three others (one more photographer and two other individuals who claim to have been targeted by the FBI due to similarly innocuous activity) are suing the Department of Justice with help from the ACLU and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.


The claim is that the SAR program breaks the Justice Department’s own rules by encouraging police to write up SARs even if there’s no valid reason to suspect that someone is doing something wrong. This, as you might expect, is particularly troubling for someone like Prigoff who was simply taking a photograph of public art:

“All I was doing was taking pictures in a public place, and now I’m apparently in a government terrorism database for decades,” Prigoff says via a statement released by the ACLU. “I lived through the McCarthy era, and I know how false accusations, surveillance, and keeping files on innocent people can destroy careers and lives. I am deeply troubled that the SAR program may be recreating that same climate of false accusation and fear today.”

The suit hopes to curtail the program (or eliminate it completely), thereby making sure that something as innocuous as taking pictures in public can’t land you on a suspicious activity list that could haunt you for decades. “It encourages a culture of fear and distrust,” writes the ACLU in a blog post about the suit, “undermining our freedom with no known benefit to our safety.”

(via Wired)

Image credits: Boston gas tank by Lasart75

  • jasdempsey

    “..painted about a decade ago” Well, if you consider 43 years a decade.

  • Guest

    Maybe it’s more clear this way: “The photographer in question is 86-year-old James Prigoff, who stopped to photograph the natural gas tank in Boston (upon which the Rainbow Swash is painted) about a decade ago.”, because in the linked article it says “In 2004, the then 76-year-old was in Boston /…/”.

  • Triin L.

    In the linked article it says “In 2004, the then 76-year-old was in Boston /…/”, so in this article it’s more like “who stopped to photograph the natural gas tank in Boston (upon which the Rainbow Swash is painted) about a decade ago.”

  • Stan B.

    I think there’s a considerable amount at stake here that is of vital, ongoing concern to just about any person with a camera in this country. And yet, not one comment of outrage, not one show of support.

    Post a freakin’ rumor concerning the latest megapixel crop, no crop sensor- a thousand comments, hopes and tribulations! A story concerning our most basic right to take a picture in public- nothing, nada, zip…


  • Juan Bautista

    They can get me on their list. Im not going to stop!

  • Imhotep

    Its all about using a false creation of fear from the ” boogieman” as a diversionary tactic to conceal the real unseen activties our government is doing to make us a markist state right before our eyes!! And the populous is so darn numb-brained where they don’t march or protest at all!! Divide the masses and the real culprits get away with any and everything! …Hotep

  • Bolkey

    Boy, and this pseudo-democratic country is defending Freedom in the world? Plain honest dictators become more sypathetic by the day…

  • JustFedUp86

    The story should be more clear on the dates as it’s a little confusing, the photos was taken ten years ago (about 2004) when Prigoff was 76, and the FBI interview happened some months after that. I was curious how/why the FBI knew it was him and his photo, and linking through to the original article and then to the lawsuit filing it says that Prigoff had set up outside the security fence as he had a place of good lighting, was told by security guards (who came outside the fence) that he had to leave, and tried a second location where the guards followed him, and finally got his photos at a third location. The FBI tracked him down as the guards reported the license plate on this rental car, and he later found there were publicly available photos that were much close than than the ones he’d taken. From the lawsuit apparently every time a SAR is file it has be followed up on, even if the person “of interest” is know not to be a threat.

    And that’s the rub, both why would a terrorist bluntly and publicly show they’re taking photos, knowing they’re likely to get stopped and reported, but also why would they bother when most many major landmark has many publicly available photos of it? This type of vacuum like law enforcement where everything possible is scooped up and analyzed in the end does more harm than good.

  • OtterMatt

    If it were possible to ensure that a good man got the throne, I’d be a monarchist.

  • therealjoeschmoe

    This summary leaves much out. Read the Wired article (link above). Funny (not) how simliar ‘terrorist’ and ‘tourist’ are. Apparently there’s no difference to the feds.

  • therealjoeschmoe

    I’d say more like fascism but I agree with your point!

  • Rob Elliott

    The Rainbow Swash was originally painted 43 years ago.. yes but it was repainted on a different tank in the early 90s.

    The Photographer took the picture in 2004 about a decade after it was created.

  • Joe Barnas

    Exactly what I was thinking. It’s quite sad.
    At least i know there’s one person that going to fight for our rights.

  • Vin Weathermon

    I hope this man lives to see the “program” abolished, and that a massive settlement is won.

  • Guest

    This is what modern leftism and liberalism looks like. Your rights end when someone feels uncomfortable. You vote for Democrats and liberal politicians, you helped build that!

  • Smarten_Up

    Or woman?

  • Smarten_Up

    Remember that “Homeland Security” and Patriot Act came in under GW Bush and was approved overwhelmingly by both Demmicans and Republicrats–a pox on both their houses. Vote Green!

  • Beaugrand_RTMC

    “It encourages a culture of fear and distrust, undermining our freedom with no known benefit to our safety.” They could be talking about Rush and Glenn and Sean and Joe, and all the rest of right-wing talk radio.

  • Beaugrand_RTMC

    The Dow at record highs, the Fortune 500 making record profits, the stock market at twice the level it was when GWB left office, the wealthiest 1% wealthier than ever, 5 consecutive years of falling deficits, I’m really not sure what the Right is whining about.

    But, hey, “BEHGHAZI!!!” and “Repeal Obamacare!!!” (since it’s FAILED more than 50 times, why not try again?)

    Sure, let’s try “Impeachment!!!” (It would fail in the Senate, but hey, let’s do it anyway, because the Right doesn’t look stupid enough) or, “Sue the President!!!” (…for delaying implementation of portions of the law that the Right doesn’t want implemented. Sure, why not? Because, after all, the Right doesn’t look stupid at all, if you ignore Mccain, Bachmann, Palin…)

  • Eric__

    As a caucasian, veteran, and registered (and voting) libertarian, Janet Napolitano saw fit to place me (and those like me) on a terror watch list. What does it mean outside of obvious racial/political targeting issues? There’s nothing new under the sun for government is always looking to make enemies out of the citizenry.

  • OtterMatt

    Woah woah woah, sparky, let’s not get crazy now. :P

  • OtterMatt

    As much as your incredible biases are adorable, we’re talking about issues here, not people.

  • Blasthoff

    Funny, all one has to do is Google, Rainbow Swash, Boston MA for a choice of photo’s.

  • David Addams

    Of course the DOW is at record high, the Fed is basically paying people to buy stocks.

    Look up the term “Quantitative Easing.”

  • Stephen431


  • ScottDonald

    Outrageous AND ineffective. If there is a database with a report every time someone takes a photo in public of a “potential target” then that is going to be a super big database of mostly useless information. If my rights as a photographer and tax paying Amercian were being infringed with some obvious value to the larger public, I would stop and at least think about my actions. However, this is useless and thus not even warrants a nano-second of thought.

    Reminds me of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station which is on the coast between San Diego and LA. Everyone takes a photo as they drive by on the highway because it looks somewhat like a pair of breasts. Imagine, database of 100,000 people who did so and posted to Facebook. How useful would that be in keeping America safe?

  • Biff

    You realize Homeland Security & the Patriot Act came in under G.W.Bush?

    That fact that you’re this dumb, is another indicator that you’ve blamed the wrong people.

    The article itself, and THE MAN STANDING UP for our rights, mentioned McCarthy-ism.

    I’ll make this real clear so your brain can understand the connection:

    The man standing up for your rights: sees himself as similar to those “communists” who got victimized.

    The man standing up for your rights: sees similarity in SAR & the uptight, conservative, Republican who victimized thousands of innocent Americans in a witch hunt.


    You and I, are the innocents accused of being “communists.”

    SAR is the Republican demagogue looking for anyone to victimize regardless of their innocence.

    The above makes sense.

    In contrast: what you are telling us is that SAR is pinko commie liberalism hunting down commies.

    It speaks of your stupidity, when the very people who’ve been victimized by these sorts of power-trips, are the same people you accuse of causing it.

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    Man this US paranoia is getting depressing. Maybe it’s better just to kick all people out, then there will be no trust issues. Let badgers rule the country.

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  • Jeremiah True

    I was going to say, this was not the original

  • Rob Elliott

    …. Do you know what Liberalism and leftism is?

    These laws and programs are created primarily by Conservative Lawmakers not those in the centre or left.

    There is no hard Left Political influence in the US. The Democrats are primarily a Centrist party with Left leaning social and Right leaning Economic Policies.

    The Republicans today are a Right Party, with a Strong Far Right Wing. It is the Far end of either spectrum that causes issues like this, as it isn’t a balanced Approach. It is Conservatives that well remove social liberty to fight a perceived threat, and anyone that would prevent them from doing so is deemed a sympathizer to that threat.

    Please finish school – read a book – turn off Fox News.

  • George Hawkins

    give me a break. As is written, this tank is so public. The number of commuters on road on a daily basis is phenomenal! This property is certainly less problematic than so manny other sites in eastern New England. Nuclear reactors in Seabrook, NH and Cape Cod, MA, and at least one in VT; the ships at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard; the attack fighter aircraft nearby at Pease; the U2 aircraft at Bedford, MA. I’m ordinary citizen and could go on. 40+ years ago sounds more accurate to me! call this issue: GIVE ME A BREAK.