Affects Who You Want to Be Seen With

Affects Who You Want to Be Seen With

Individuals should be free to live their lives without the fear that their lawful activities, private relationships, and personal proclivities are being monitored by police or other citizens.

This Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations… Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.

U.S. Supreme Court, N.A.A.C.P v. State of Alabama (1958)


Individuals should be free to live their lives without the fear that their lawful activities, private relationships, and personal proclivities are being monitored by police or other citizens.

Some investigatory tools have the potential to chill the exercise of the First Amendment right of freedom of association. Surveillance techniques that collect and store vast quantities of information about the locations, movements, and communications of people have the potential to reveal sensitive information about their membership in political, religious, business, labor, fraternal, or other organizations. If surveillance of lawful meetings becomes commonplace, some people may choose to avoid these activities altogether.

Even mass surveillance techniques that do not intentionally target political meetings or places of worship have the potential to collect and reveal sensitive information about a person’s  associations. Location data, acquired over time by license plate or cell phone tracking, could be used identify an individual as a member of a particular labor union or religious sect. Moreover, stored surveillance information is available as a public record, possibly leading to the abuse of law enforcement information by private actors. For instance, a party to a bitter custody dispute could gain hold of information indicating that the opposing party regularly attends alcohol support group meetings. Or, a business owner may discover that a competitor has met frequently with a potential new partner and is close to closing a major deal.

Examples of Use

  • Map of Texas
    Health privacy organization impacted by NSA surveillance

    In 2013, Patient Privacy Rights, a Texas-based organization committed to protecting health information from exploitation or disclosure, joined a lawsuit against the National Security Agency. The organization estimates that “40-50 million patients per year delay or avoid essential treatment or hide information to try and protect the privacy of their health data,” which can be “used to damage reputations, jobs, credit, and more.” The organization’s work relies on the group’s anonymous office telephone line, which collects reports from patients, providers, insurers, and most importantly, whistleblowers who want to expose serious health data security risks. This flow of information depends on the organization’s strict privacy policy, which promises that its callers’ information will never be released.

    According to an affidavit by the group’s founder and CEO, the revelations of the NSA’s call tracking program has essentially made that promise “false,” causing average monthly incoming calls to drop by half. The group must now advise people who contact the group that its call and email records are not secure, and the group alleges that this has “made whistleblowers afraid to report government and industry health privacy violations.” PPR’s work depends on our freedom of association. Without the guarantee of privacy, doctors, insurance workers, and IT specialists who would like to help protect private health information fear that information concerning their whistleblowing could be irresponsibly.


When government agencies consider acquiring and using surveillance systems, communities and their elected officials must both weigh the benefits against the costs to civil liberties and carefully craft policies and procedures that help to limit the negative effects that surveillance will have on fundamental rights.  For a useful list of considerations, please visit the recommendations page.

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