Harms Reputation

Harms Reputation

Pervasive surveillance can reveal parts of our lives that – for any number of legitimate reasons – we’d rather not see go public

Eavesdroppers [are those who] listen under walls or windows, or the eaves of a house, to hearken after discourse, and thereupon to frame slanderous or mischievous tales…

William R. Blackstone, English jurist, judge, and politician, in Commentaries on the Law of England


No human being is perfect, and taking risks and making mistakes is an important part of life. Pervasive surveillance can reveal parts of our lives that – for any number of legitimate reasons – we’d rather not see go public.

Someone monitoring our movements, phone records, or web traffic can find information that reveals secret relationships, financial troubles, family strain, health problems, eccentric interests or activities, or embarrassing vices. Information taken out of context can suggest an embarrassing secret when it doesn’t actually reveal anything unseemly at all. In the recent past, some agencies used the surveillance information they collected to smear and manipulate political activists, whistleblowers, academics, and others who never broke the law. Unless you’ve committed a crime, it’s not the government’s place to scrutinize, judge, or expose you.

Often, the mere fact of being under surveillance jeopardizes your standing in your community. When the police target a person or group for surveillance, doing so implied that the target may be dangerous or criminal. Even if no one makes a specific allegation against a person or group, surveillance casts a pall of suspicion that may cause friends and associates to regard the target as disreputable, unreliable, or threatening, etc. Others, simply hoping to avoid falling under surveillance themselves, may curtail their association. According to one , surveillance of activists casts a “taint” of “agitation or conspiracy” on their organizations and their work. This enables the government to paint a false picture of some groups and to stigmatize them in a way that undermines their efforts.

Examples of Use

  • Map of Massachusettes featuring Boston
    Boston, MA
    Boston Police Department labels peace activists "criminals"

    In the mid-1980s, 10 veterans who objected to the nuclear arms race founded Veterans for Peace. By 2003, the organization had 8,000 members across all 50 states. The organization participated at the head of protests against the Iraq War, catching the attention of Boston Regional Intelligence Center, a federally-supported “intelligence fusion center” run by the Boston Police Department. A public records lawsuit by the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild found that the BPD had monitored, and perhaps even infiltrated the organization, keeping tabs on their plans and filming their anti-war activities.

    None of the ”intelligence reports” prepared on the group indicated any criminal activity. Several of the intelligence documents reported on plans to hand out fliers. Another discussed a group discussion of whether to minimize protests in order to give the Democratic Party a better shot in the 2008 elections. Nevertheless, many of the reports contained headings such as “Criminal Act” or “Civil Disturbance,” and label the Veterans for Peace organization “extremist.” As one Boston peace activist said, “A democracy works when people feel like they can speak their mind, and speak their mind with passion… I think that people are scared of being seen out place. It takes risks to live in a democracy. We all have to take those risks. And if the police are monitoring us, who wants to take a risk?”


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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