Inhibits Legitimate Behaviors and Choices

Inhibits Legitimate Behaviors and Choices

Even if you have nothing to hide, being watched by the government can impact your behavior.

The price of lawful public dissent must not be a dread of subjection to an unchecked surveillance power. Nor must the fear of unauthorized official eavesdropping deter vigorous citizen dissent and discussion of Government action in private conversation. For private dissent, no less than open public discourse, is essential to our free society.

U.S. Supreme Court, United States v. U.S. District Court (1972)


“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” says one surveillance campaign slogan. But even if you have nothing to hide, being watched by the government can impact your behavior. Some people may avoid legitimate activities and make choices they otherwise wouldn’t have made.

For example, being watched by police cameras – even in crowded public places – causes people to become more self-conscious, even if they’re doing nothing wrong. After Washington, D.C. police installed a vast new camera system, columnist Jacob Sullum suggested that “[people] may put more thought into how they dress, lest they look like terrorists, gang members, druggies, or hookers.” A  found high levels of anxiety and anger among Muslim Americans, one-fifth of whom believed they had been under government surveillance since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite being cleared of any connection to terrorism, they could “never be certain the monitoring had ceased” and constantly “view[ed] themselves as likely targets of future surveillance.” They reported “adopting more avoidant and vigilant behaviors in response to the possibility of government surveillance.” Some took particular care to change their behavior around other members of their faith, suspecting that they might be government informers. Many even refused to discuss about their anxieties with fellow Muslims, fearing that just talking about them would invite more government scrutiny.

The police are not the only ones with access to surveillance information. Surveillance data collected by investigators is open to all as a public record. Even if the police don’t find your activities worthy of scrutiny, your boss, ex-partner, business competitor, or work rival might. Automatic license plate readers, for instance, collect and collate the location information of every car they capture. The mayor of Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, briefly halted the city’s ALPR program when privacy advocates showed him how to create a detailed history of his own movements using license plate data.

Examples of Use

  • Map of New York State featuring New York City
    New York City,
    Hunger charity suffers due to police surveillance of Muslim community

    For nearly 12 years, the New York City Police Department conducted extensive surveillance of mosques, student groups and charities led by Muslims. This surveillance even included restaurants and grocery stores that Muslims frequented. In 2011, an aspiring social worker named Asad Dandia helped start a Muslim-led charity and religious outreach group called Feesabilillah Services of NYC. A man he didn’t know soon contacted him to join his group, seemingly eager to help. After befriending him and introducing him to his family, Dandia noticed that this man sometimes behaved oddly, asking others in the group for their phone numbers within minutes of meeting them and taking pictures of the group at every occasion.

    In the spring of 2012, friends told Dandia they’d heard rumors that the NYPD had informers in his organization. Though the charity existed solely to collect and deliver food donations, membership in the group and its board of directors immediately dropped off. After the informant confessed, the mosque that had supported the organization barred them from using its facilities or collecting donations from the congregation. “I still can’t understand why people who are feeding the poor are targeted by the NYPD,” he says. “[Our] sense of community and trust has been damaged, and our organization's reputation and legitimacy has suffered.”


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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