Homeland Security Warns of Photography as a Potential Sign of Terrorism

Homeland Security Warns of Photography as a Potential Sign of Terrorism

Homeland Security did its best impression of the Party from 1984 this week after taking to Twitter to claim that photography can be a sign of terrorism.

It's no secret that photographers regularly have to cite their rights when being told they are not allowed to photograph certain places or buildings, even when they are perched safely on public land. Time and time again we have posted videos and court cases of everything from overzealous security guards trying to usher away a photographer from the building they have been ordered to man, through to the seizure of camera equipment for the crime of only appearing suspicious. It's a dangerous precedent and the Department of Homeland Security for the United States has now made steps to formalize that notion.

While awareness of suspicious behavior is undoubtedly important, the net cast here by DHS is so wide it's likely to return to the boat with far more than just fish. Frank LoMonte of University of Florida's Brechner Center for Freedom of Information gave the Columbia Journalism Review a tongue-in-cheek but powerful summary: “When you look at what DHS identifies as the signs [and objects] of suspicious photography—‘personnel, facilities, security features, or infrastructure’—it basically leaves squirrels as the only thing that’s safe to photograph ... That's a pretty breathtakingly broad inventory.” 

It's an exaggeration to say that this sentiment is similar to that of a totalitarian state, but only a little one. Christopher Hitchens on a talk about the Axis of Evil and Saddam Hussein's regime pointed out a culture of fear whenever you mention their leader's name, as if anything could happen next. In more contemporary comparisons, we are watching live as Dong Yaoqiong — or "Ink Girl" — has gone missing after throwing ink over Xi Jinping's face in images of him in public, in China. Feeling fearful of having your camera out or taking pictures of or near government buildings is just a stone's throw away. Whether directly intentional or not, this tweet is aiming to dissuade photographers from taking photos in certain public areas. I needn't unpack the conflict this causes with the U.S's First Amendment and constitutional rights and its patent infringement.

What are your thoughts on the DHS's message here? Do you think it's a fair and reasonable measure to combat terrorism, or is it Orwellian and invasive?

Thank you to Kat Moore for bringing this to our attention.

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88 Comments

Just see how many cameras are installed on the roads and how many people die there every day.

Camera is surely the sign of coming death for people.

Did you know that terrorists eat food? If you see someone buying food, report it!

Josh Kummerow's picture

I've heard they also breathe air! If you see someone breathing, best not take any chances and report them.

user-156929's picture

Or take it upon yourself to make them stop! You guys are funny! :-)

user-156929's picture

DeBaeremaeker doesn't sound like an American name! Who are you and what are you doing on this site? ROTFLMAO

Typical terrorist surname. Sound like O’Binladen.

Warren An's picture

Or hand gestures like scratching their head! It could be code to other cell members!

Orwellian to be sure. I'm constantly amused at how much citizens of this country allow the government to invade their lives. So much government that this kind of thing is thought normal. Used to be constitutional protections were a thing but we seem to have given up on that. Why people aren't screaming at the top of their lungs for less government is beyond me, nay they seem to most want more. The two political tribes are each barnacles on our lives but they are worshiped nonetheless. So yea, this is just another way the government chips away at our freedom of speech.

Your confused. There's nothing orwellian about it.. Just keep an eye out, no one here seems to pay attention to the unusual or covert part of the tweet..and the targets of those photographers .....

Matt Williams's picture

One problem with your assertion is that the actual tweet - the words written by the DHS - only mention "photography" in general. Your argument hinges on a) everyone reads the little graphic, which, well, maybe you don't know people these days and b) everyone has a reasonable definition of what constitutes "covert" or "unusual".

Johnny Rico's picture

"Homeland Security did its best impression of the Party from 1984 this week after taking to Twitter to claim that photography can be a sign of terrorism."

Hahhaha really now....

Have absolutely no issue with it. It's basically a reminder to report any suspicions activity, some things just seem out of place.

EDIT: this article, written as is here on Fstoppers is entirely disingenuous.

DHS responded: “[This] is not focused on the right of photography or media filming itself, but more about what/how/when someone might be photographing or filming something. We are not asking people to file a report if they see someone taking pictures through the normal course of daily life, but rather if someone is filming secure areas or security protocols in a prolonged manner.”

Robert K Baggs's picture

Ah yes, the "what/how/when" caveat. Imagine this was applied to something more extreme, like speech: "This is not focused on the right of speech or people speaking in itself, but more about what/how/when somebody might be speaking."

Who dictates what is cause for concern? Photographing important government buildings is commonplace in all countries and as for a prolonged manner... are timelapses or long-exposures considered signs of terrorism now?

So as not to be misconstrued with my reply: I want comments from the side of the DHS for a balanced debate. I just personally disagree and don't think I've been disingenuous in the slightest. If anything, their response is at best a row back on the worrying tone that has been picked up on, and at worst an attempt to justify it. But thank you for engaging rationally — and I mean that. I always welcome debate.

Patrick Marcigliano's picture

I'll take the side of the DHS on this one, but will note that it's perhaps a poorly worded tweet. At the end of the day they're just saying "look, if something doesn't look right or seems off when you see someone taking pictures of something most people wouldn't normally be taking pictures of, then don't be afraid to speak up." I think a little grace, and common sense goes a long way before jumping to Orwellian and totalitarian conclusions.

Robert K Baggs's picture

I think that's a generous view of the DHS's stance (and I like that). Your way of expressing a similar stance is significantly milder but I'm not quite sure I can marry the two comments under the same objective. 100 years ago I think it could have made more sense to flag photographers, but with 1.8 billion photos taken every day, I'm just not sure what they aim to achieve with this particular tweet. I don't want to be the under-grad philosophy student asking every word to be comprehensively unpacked, but what on earth does "covert" and "unusual" photo-taking entail? It's important to create a distinction in your/their answer too: it presumably can't just be ordinarily unusual or covert behaviour near government buildings, or the DHS's message would be redundant. It has to be covert and/or unusual behaviour with a camera.

Again though, thank you for the reply. I'm more than open to changing my mind on this, I'm just not seeing it quite yet.

user-156929's picture

I think the disparate reactions to this are a result of degrees. Everyone should be wary of government intrusion in our lives but have no choice but to trust them to a degree. We each have different ideas where that line should be and what is a reasonable response when it's crossed. Often, and I believe it to be the case here, the line is dependent on how such actions affect us individually as well as our individual experiences. Being a Briton, your distrust of the U.S. government is just as reasonable to me as mine to your government, that is to say: none! :-)

So you're attacking US government policy and measures to protect its citizens and yet you don't live under those measures. Being a Brit and all. Have you ever been to the States? Ever lived here?

Matt Williams's picture

You haven't been disingenuous whatsoever. This is a blatantly irresponsible tweet from the DHS.

Anyone who defends it is simply doing gymnastics with words and assuming the average person who sees this is going to think about it in a logical and reasoned manner.

The original tweet is entirely irresponsible, not just for photographers, but for anyone. It supports the notion (a notion that many believe) that there are tons of terrorists lurking out there, just waiting to blow stuff up or kill people.

Beyond that, imagine the hell this would cause for any Middle-Eastern photographers, who probably have to deal with enough sh*t as it is.

user-156929's picture

Imagine, just for a moment, you work at the DHS. Every time a terrorist does blow something or someone up, despite the fact they're not "lurking out there, just waiting to blow stuff up or kill people," you and your people get blamed for not doing your job. Imagine every time it happens, you can't sleep at night and on the rare occasion, you can, you wake up in a cold sweat from a nightmare where it happened and keep asking yourself what you could have done to prevent it. But when you wake up, it wasn't a nightmare. It's real. Maybe you could give them a little break. Maybe.

Matt Williams's picture

Nope, not giving a break to people like the DHS who constantly support abuse of power and subverting the rights of citizens

Joshua Kolsky's picture

How would we even know. Camera are literally everywhere. Everyone has a cell phone. With an issue like this you can be detained without reason and held for however long they feel necessary.

Johnny Rico's picture

Some things just seem strange and off. Door to door salesman/solicitors are everywhere, it is what it is. I've also called and reported 2 to the sergeants desk of the local PD. A pair that was still doing the rounds and rang the bell at 8:30pm (was 30 min after sunset), and trying to sell me Comcast when I already had Comcast. Damn that felt out of place. Called and reported it and they had a car over in 5 min and chatted with them for about 10 min. That was the end of it and they left, then the cop left.

I have no idea if they were legitimate and trying to get to an extra few houses for the night, or if they were going and trying to find an empty house, or an elderly person. Just didn't feel right.

I've also had a guy in an unmarked work van stop out front of my house and proceed to sit there and looked as if he was taking a photo of my house, midday. Well I made it a point to grab the mail which is on the far side of the street, and take a photo of his license plate on the way back across, dude saw what I was doing and sped off. I have no idea if he stopped to make a speakerphone call or what, it just felt off. Might as well get a plate in case something got broken into.

Michael McCray's picture

We gave up freedom for the illusion of security. America is longer the home of the brave.as far as I can see.

I think it says a lot that you can now pay a fee to keep your shoes and belt on and go through a faster line at the airport security theater.

Tony Clark's picture

Which proves that commonsense has been thrown out the window. People will freak out if they see a DSLR but do nothing when someone pulls out a cellphone to take a picture? Personally, I think those that carry a selfie stick are the bigger threat to our society. Which begs to ask, crazy, is it contagious?

Johnny Rico's picture

No where does it mention DSLR. This is why this article falls way short and is very jaded.

DHS responded: “[This] is not focused on the right of photography or media filming itself, but more about what/how/when someone might be photographing or filming something. We are not asking people to file a report if they see someone taking pictures through the normal course of daily life, but rather if someone is filming secure areas or security protocols in a prolonged manner.”

Joshua Kolsky's picture

Ok so if you see me taking pictures outside of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, you're going to call the DHS on me. Maybe im taking pictures of Aircraft of just looking for a cool shot of the base.

user-156929's picture

That behavior is neither unusual or covert.

Kirk Darling's picture

Reminds me of a case in the 80s of an Air Force major connected to the SR-71 program who was taking pictures of SRs and U-2s taking off at Beale AFB, CA. Normal folk pause on the roads near the flightline and take a few snaps. This guy would set up several cameras on tripods with long lenses and 250-exposure backs. That did set off an investigation. They discovered reams of classified SR-71 information in his hotel room (he lived in a hotel) that he'd pilfered from his work.

Kirk Darling's picture

Johnny Rico (hey, I read Heinlein, too!) you're reading the tweet through a photographer's filter.

To the average person, "taking pictures through the normal course of living life" means using a cell phone.

If you're using a DSLR, and--OMG--particularly if you've got a long lens on it, then you're definitely doing something pernicious.

You can have a small prime lens on your DSLR or mirrorless camera and people will just assume because you have a camera that's bigger than a cellphone it can "zoom in" for really close magnification.

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