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Protecting Civil Rights Organizations and Activists: A Policy Addressing the Government’s Use of Surveillance Tools

03.01.23 | 11 min read | Text by Korica Simon


In the summer of 2020, some 15 to 26 million people across the country participated in protests against the tragic killings of Black people by law enforcement officers, making it the largest movement in US history. In response, local and state government officials and federal agencies deployed surveillance tools on protestors in an unprecedented way. The Department of Homeland Security used aerial surveillance on protesters across 15 cities, and several law enforcement agencies engaged in social media monitoring of activists. But there is still a lot the public does not know, such as what other surveillance tactics were used during the protests, where this data is being stored, and for what future purpose. 

Government agencies have for decades secretly used surveillance tactics on individual activists, such as during the 1950s when the FBI surveilled human rights activists and civil rights organizations. These tactics have had a detrimental effect on political movements, causing people to forgo protesting and activism out of fear of such surveillance. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and the right to assemble, but allowing government entities to engage in underground surveillance tactics strips people of these rights. 

It also damages people’s Fourth Amendment rights. Instead of agencies relying on the court system to get warrants and subpoenas to view an individual’s online activity, today some agencies are entering into partnerships with private companies to obtain this information directly. This means government agencies no longer have to meet the bare minimum of having probable cause before digging into an individual’s private data.

This proposal offers a set of actions that federal agencies and Congress should implement to preserve the public’s constitutional rights. 

Challenges and Opportunities 

Government entities have been surveilling activists and civil rights organizations long before the 2020 protests. Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI engaged in surveillance tactics to disrupt, discredit, and destroy many civil rights organizations, such as the Black Panther Party, American Indian Movement, and the Communist Party. Some of these tactics included illegal wiretaps, infiltration, misinformation campaigns, and bugs. This program was known as COINTELPRO, and the FBI’s goal was to destroy organizations and activists who had political agendas that they viewed as radical and would challenge “the existing social order.” While the FBI didn’t completely achieve this goal, their efforts did have detrimental effects on activist communities, as members were imprisoned or killed for their activist work, and membership in organizations  like the Black Panther Party significantly declined and eventually dissolved in 1982

After COINTELPRO was revealed to the public, reforms were put in place to curtail the FBI’s surveillance tactics against civil rights organizations, but those reforms were soon rolled back after the September 11 attacks. Since 9/11, it has been revealed, mostly through FOIA requests, that the FBI has surveilled the Muslim community, Occupy Wall Street, Standing Rock protesters, murder of Freddie Gray protesters, Black Lives Matter protests, and more. Today, the FBI has more technological tools at their disposal that make mass surveillance and data collection on activist communities incredibly easy. 

In 2020, people across the country used social media sites like Facebook to increase engagement and turnout in local Black Lives Matters protests. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces responded by visiting people’s homes and workplaces to question them about their organizing, causing people to feel alarmed and terrified. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also got involved, deploying a drone over Minneapolis to provide live video to local law enforcement. The Acting Secretary of CBP also tweeted out that CBP was working with law enforcement agencies across the nation during the 2020 Black Lives Matter Protests. CBP involvement in civil rights protests is incredibly concerning given its ability to circumvent the Fourth Amendment and conduct warrantless searches due to the border search exception. (Federal regulations and federal law gives CBP the authority to conduct warrantless searches and seizures within 100 miles of the U.S. border, where approximately two-thirds of the U.S. population resides.)

The longer government agencies are allowed to surveil people who are simply organizing for progressive policies, the more people will be terrified to voice their opinion about the state of affairs in the United States. This has had detrimental effects on people’s First and Fourth Amendment rights and will continue to have even more effects as technology improves and government entities have access to advanced tools. Now is the time for government agencies and Congress to act to prevent further abuse of the public’s rights to protest and assemble. A country that uses tools to watch its residents will ultimately lead to a country with little to no civic engagement and the complete silencing of marginalized communities. 

While there is a lot of opportunity to address mass surveillance and protect people’s constitutional rights, government officials have refused to address government surveillance for decades, despite public protest. In the few instances where government officials put up roadblocks to stop surveillance tactics, those roadblocks were later removed or reformed so as to allow the previous surveillance to continue. The lack of political will of Congressmembers to address these issues has been a huge challenge for civil rights organizations and individuals fighting for change. 

Plan of Action 

Regulations need to be put in place to restrict federal agency use of surveillance tools on the public. 

Recommendation 1. Federal agencies must disclose technologies they are using to surveil individuals and organizations, as well as the frequency with which they use them. Agencies should to publish this information on their websites and produce a more comprehensive report for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review. 

Every six months, Google releases the number of requests it receives from government agencies asking for user information. Google informs the public on the number of accounts that were affected by those requests and whether the request was a subpoena, search warrant, or other court order. The FBI also discloses the number of DNA samples it has collected from individuals in each U.S. state and territory and how many of those DNA samples aided in investigations.

Likewise, government agencies should be required to disclose the names of the technologies they are purchasing to surveil people in the United States as well as the number of times they use this technology within the year. Government entities should no longer be able to hide which technologies their departments are using to watch the public. People should be informed on the depth of the government’s use of these tools so they have a chance to voice their objections and concerns. 

Federal agencies also need to publish a more comprehensive report for the DOJ to review. This report will include what technologies were used and where, what category of organizations they were used against, racial demographics of the people who were surveilled, and possible threats to civil rights. The DOJ will use this information to run investigate whether agencies are violating the Fourth Amendment or First Amendment in using these technologies against the public. 

Agencies may object to releasing this information because of the possibility of it interfering with investigations. However, Google does not release the names of individuals who have had their user information requested, and neither should government agencies release user information. Because government agencies won’t be required to release specific information on individuals to the public, this will not affect their investigations. This disclosure request is aimed at knowing what tools government agencies are using and giving the DOJ the opportunity to investigate whether these tools violate constitutional rights. 

Recommendation 2. Attorney General Guidelines should be revised in collaboration with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and civil rights organizations that specialize in technology issues.

The FBI has used advanced technology to watch activists and protests with little to no government oversight or input from civil rights organizations. When conducting an investigation or assessment of an individual or organization, FBI agents follow the Attorney General Guidelines, which dictate how investigations should be conducted. Unfortunately, these guidelines do little to protect the public’s civil rights—and in fact contain a few provisions that are quite problematic: 

These provisions are problematic for a few reasons. FBI employees should not be able to conduct assessments on individuals without a factual basis. Giving employees the power to pick and choose who they want to assess provides an opportunity for inherent bias. Instead, all assessments and investigations should have some factual basis behind them and receive approval from a supervisor. Physical surveillance and internet searches, likewise, should not be conducted by FBI agents without probable cause. Allowing these kinds of practices opens the entire public to having their privacy invaded. 

These policies should be reviewed and revised to ensure that activists and organizations won’t be subject to surveillance due to internal bias. President Biden should issue an executive order directing OSTP to collaborate with the Office of the Attorney General on the guidelines. OSTP should have a task force dedicated to researching government surveillance and the impact on marginalized groups to guide them on this collaboration. 

External organizations that are focused on technology and civil rights should also be brought in to review the final guidelines and voice any concerns. Civil rights organizations are more in tune with the effect that government surveillance has on their communities and the best mechanisms that should be put in place to preserve privacy rights. 

Congress also should take steps to protect the public’s civil rights by passing the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, revising the Stored Communications Act, and passing border exception legislation. 

Recommendation 3. Congress should close the loophole that allows government agencies to circumvent the Fourth Amendment and purchase data from private companies by passing the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act. 

In 2008, it was revealed that AT&T had entered into a voluntary partnership with the National Security Agency (NSA) from 2001 to 2008. AT&T built a room in its headquarters that was dedicated to providing the NSA with a massive quantity of internet traffic, including emails and web searches. 

Today, AT&T has eight facilities that intercept internet traffic across the world and provide it to the NSA, allowing them to view people’s emails, phone calls, and online conversations. And the NSA isn’t the only federal agency partnering with private companies to spy on Americans. It was revealed in 2020 that the FBI has an agreement with Dataminr, a company that monitors people’s social media accounts, and Venntel, Inc., a company that purchases bulk location data and maps the movements of millions of people in the United States. These agreements were signed and modified after BLM protests were held across the country. 

Allowing government agencies to enter into agreements with private companies to surveil people gives them the ability to bypass the Fourth Amendment and spy on individuals with no restriction. Federal agencies no longer need rely on the courts when seeking private communications and thoughts; they can now purchase sensitive information like a person’s location data and social media activity from a private company. Congress should end this practice and ban federal government agencies from purchasing people’s private data from third parties by passing the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act. If this bill passed, government agents could no longer purchase location data from a data broker to figure out who was in a certain area during a protest or partner with a company to obtain people’s social media postings without going through the legal process. 

Recommendation 4. Congress should amend the Stored Communications Act of 1986 (SCA) to compel electronic communication service companies to prove they are in compliance with the act. 

The SCA prohibits companies that provide an electronic communication service from “knowingly” sharing their stored user data with the government. While data brokers are more than likely excluded from this provision, companies that provide direct services to the public such as Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are not. Because of this law, direct service companies aren’t partnering with government agencies to sell user information, but they are selling user data to third parties like data brokers. 

There should be a responsibility placed on electronic communication service companies to ensure that the companies they sell user information to won’t sell data to government entities. Congress should amend the SCA to include a provision requiring companies to annually disclose who they sold user data to and whether they verified with the third party that the data will not be eventually sold to a government entity. Verification should require at minimum a conversation with the third party about the SCA provision and a signed agreement that the third party will not sell any user information to the government. The DOJ will be tasked with reviewing these disclosures for compliance. 

Recommendation 5. Congress should pass legislation revoking the border search exception. As stated earlier, this exception allows federal agents to conduct warrantless searches and seizures within 100 miles of the U.S. border. It also allows federal agents to search and seize digital devices at the border without having any level of suspicion that the traveler has committed a crime. CBP agents have pressured travelers to unlock their devices to look at the content, as well as downloaded the content of the devices and stored the data in a central database for up to 15 years. 

While other law enforcement agencies are forced to abide by the Fourth Amendment, federal agents have been able to bypass the Fourth Amendment and conduct warrantless searches and seizures without restriction. If federal agents are allowed to continue operating without the restrictions of the Fourth Amendment, it’s possible we will see more instances of local law enforcement agencies calling on CBP to conduct surveillance operations on the general public during protests. This is an unconscionable amount of power to give to agencies that can and has led to serious abuse of the public’s privacy rights. Congress must roll back this authority and require all law enforcement agencies—local, state, and federal—to have probable cause at a minimum before engaging in searches and seizures. 


For too long, government agencies have been able to surveil individuals and civil rights organizations with little to no oversight. With the advancement of technology, their surveillance capabilities have grown tremendously, leading to near 24/7 surveillance. Regulations must be put in place to restrict the use of surveillance technologies by federal agencies, and Congress must pass legislation to protect the public’s constitutional rights.

Frequently Asked Questions
What are Attorney General Guidelines?

The FBI operates under the jurisdiction of the DOJ and reports to the Attorney General. The Attorney General has been granted the authority under U.S. Codes and Executive Order 12333 to issue guidelines for the FBI to follow when they conduct domestic investigations. These are the Attorney General Guidelines.

What is the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act?

This bill was introduced by Senators Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, and 18 others in 2021 to protect the public from having government entities purchase their personal information, such as location data, from private companies rather than going through the court system. Instead, the government would be required to obtain a court order before they getting an individual’s personal information from a data broker. This is a huge step in protecting people’s private information and stopping mass government surveillance.