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.



The Countering Violent Extremism program by the US government is a controversial, contemporary manifestation of the themes in the timeline. Ostensibly, it is intended to root out extremism by making partnerships between law enforcement agencies and community leaders to find at-risk members and steer them away from violence. However, there are many questions over how it is done and if the Muslim community is being unfairly singled out. Cato held an event on the topic in 2017, which may be of interest to those studying domestic surveillance programs.

Countering Violent Extremism: The Trump Era - Panel 1

Countering Violent Extremism: The Trump Era - Panel 2

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

Should Police Facial Recognition Be Banned?

Given the state of affairs a facial recognition ban in San Francisco may be worthwhile, but we should consider whether bans are optimal facial recognition policies. 

Doctors as Data Entry Clerks for the Government Health Surveillance System

A new book catalogs in frightening detail how doctors are being made into data collectors for the health care surveillance state

Surveillance Tech Still a Concern After Carpenter

While the ruling is welcome it remains narrow, leaving law enforcement with many tools that can be used to uncover intimate details about people’s private lives without a warrant, including persistent aerial surveillance, license plate readers, and facial recognition.

Chicago Police Don’t Need Facial Recognition Drones

Police using drones to indiscriminately snoop on large groups of law-abiding people would pose an unnecessary threat to privacy, which shouldn’t be an option.  

ICE Scraps Plans For “Extreme Vetting” Prediction Tech

Fortunately, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is no longer pursuing vetting technology that would be unreliable and discriminatory.


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.