American government keeps files on “suspicious” photographers

(pdf link) - Suspicious Activity Reports from Joint Regional Intelligence Center Los Angeles Region - released by the American Civil Liberties Union
(pdf link) – Suspicious Activity Reports from Joint Regional Intelligence Center Los Angeles Region – released by the American Civil Liberties Union

We’ve covered the war on cameras many times before. In some cases, police harass photographers for taking pictures of police action. In other cases, photographers are reported or stopped for taking pictures of buildings and bridges in plain view (previously, and also here). In the US, it’s not illegal to take pictures of people, places, and things visible while standing on public property, but that doesn’t stop security guards and policemen from interfering with photographers using their cameras. In a security awareness poster, in fact, the Transportation Safety Administration has equated photographers with terrorists.

The ACLU has just released a slew of “Suspicious Activity Reports” (← pdf link) from the FBI’s Joint Regional Intelligence Center in Los Angeles. An NPR report about the documents’ release details the case of photographer Hal Bergman, who has been questioned both in person and over the phone multiple times by FBI agents. Bergman likes to photograph industrial scenes, and that’s enough to raise the suspicion of the federal government. In the screenshot of one of the reports above, a report describes the investigation of a pair of photographers who were photographing empty lots and streets around a manufacturing plant.

Many of the incidents and investigations contained in these “Suspicious Activity Reports” end, as above, with a line similar to “No further police action/investigation was taken.” However, the reports show that individuals are being targeted for being unfriendly, taking pictures for an art class, or buying water. It’s a waste of resources and potentially quite harmful to the people whose actions are being investigated. In a recent unrelated case, a dark-skinned man was pulled aside for additional screening by the TSA while passing through airport security. Though TSA and the NYPD cleared him after several hours of questioning, Jet Blue refused to allow him to board his plane. Sometimes having a record of being investigated, regardless of whether a crime was committed or not, is enough to make ordinary activities inconvenient or impossible.

Here are some resources to help photographers know their rights in the US:

Photographers watch out! You could be arrested for recording police activity at Chicago NATO events (UPDATED)

UPDATE (7 May 2012): Thanks to Kyle Hillman for writing in with news that the city of Chicago has announced that they will not enforce these eavesdropping laws during demonstrations at NATO events this month. In March of this year, too, a judge ruled that the law barring recording police activity was unconstitutional. Hopefully this law is not long for the world…

Original post: If you’re planning to cover the NATO events in Chicago in a couple of weeks, you need to be aware of Illinois laws regarding police activity (the main G8 meeting was moved to Camp David, but the NATO Summit will continue as planned). We’ve covered this issue before, but it bears repeating. Under Illinois eavesdropping laws, a number of people have been arrested and prosecuted for recording audio (some in the course of recording video) of police activity. While Massachusetts does not prosecute people for openly recording police activity, Illinois has gone after individuals for both secret and opening recording of police duties. A proposed law in Illinois, HB3944, “exempts from an eavesdropping violation the recording of a peace officer who is performing a public duty in a public place and speaking at a volume audible to the unassisted human ear.” There’s a strong argument to be made that even secret recording of police activity is vital to the public interest in fighting police abuse and corruption; it’s a frightening prospect when police work to undermine the public’s protection against their power. But, in the meantime, it remains illegal in Illinois to record audio of police in the state. If you’re planning to capture video or audio at the upcoming Chicago events, be very careful.

While we’re at it (and thinking of a photographer friends’ experiences in Seattle covering Occupy protests yesterday), get acquainted with your rights as a photographer and journalist. Time Lightbox recently published a handy list of links, many of which will be familiar to long-time readers of this blog:

Stay safe out there. None of these resources will protect you when the police or anyone else is hitting you or destroying your gear.

In Brief: Blocking New Detainee Photos

From The New York Times: “Gates Blocks Photographs of Prisoners”

Federal courts had rejected the government’s arguments to block their release, so Congress gave Mr. Gates new powers to keep them private under a law signed last month by President Obama.

The promised/reneged release of new prisoner abuse photographs by the US Military has been an ongoing story but this, I believe, is the first use of this specific new power given to the Secretary of Defense by the Congress. He is now the final arbiter to decide what is released and what is not. End of discussion?