American Big Brother: A Century of Political Surveillance and Repression

In his 2004 book Perilous Times, Geoffrey R. Stone observes that with respect to free speech rights in wartime, "Time and again, Americans have suppressed dissent, imprisoned and deported dissenters, and then—later—regretted their actions." In reality, as the timeline below demonstrates, it is not simply American's free speech rights that are often threatened by federal agencies. The federal government's penchant for surveilling, penetrating, and actively subverting domestic political activities by individuals and groups spans periods of peace and war over more than a century.

Whether protesting the march to war, federal policy on AIDS research, civil rights violations, or simply enjoying the Nevada desert at a "Burning Man" gathering, the common theme that emerges is that simply publicly expressing strong political views that run counter to the prevailing government political paradigm is often enough to trigger federal government surveillance. The purpose of this timeline is to further public understanding of the scope of this problem. Check this page periodically, as this "living document" is being updated regularly on the basis of ongoing archival research as well as fresh developments making news.

Share what you learned on Twitter with the hashtag #CenturyofSurveillance.



Cato's 2015 Annual Surveillance Conference featured a number of expert panels and presentations that illuminated the magnitude of and constitutional threats posed by the federal government's surveillance programs. The three segments below complement the themes raised by the timeline.

The Second Annual Cato Surveillance Conference: National Surveillance Laws on a Borderless Network

The Feeling of Being Watched

The Closing Keynote

Additional Readings

Blog Posts

Peter King Wants Nationwide Surveillance of Muslim Americans

In 11 years of pervasive surveillance of the Muslim community, the NYPD Demographics Unit didn’t generate a single lead. Peter King wants Donald Trump to take the program national.

Delete NSEERS Before Trump Takes Office

NSEERS was ineffective as an anti-terrorism tool.

Amazon Patents Police Traffic Stop Drone

A new device could improve traffic stops, one of the most common police-civilian encounters. 

How Not to Think About Drone Policy

Legislatures shouldn’t wait for a police drone to shoot someone before crafting regulatory legislation.

Cities Seek Police Surveillance Transparency and Oversight

Police departments should be more transparent about the rapidly-advancing surveillance technology they use.   


Surveillance Reform: the Congressional-Intelligence Complex Strikes Back

The Nunes-Clapper letter is the first salvo in the battle over the fate of this critically important surveillance reform measure. It will not be the last.