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.

Log in or register to post comments

88 Comments

Alexander Petrenko's picture

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.

Dave DeBaeremaeker's picture

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.

Deleted Account's picture

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

Deleted Account's picture

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

Alexander Petrenko's picture

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!

Burke Morris's picture

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.

random americano's picture

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.

Deleted Account'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! :-)

Ann Quimby's picture

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.

Deleted Account'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 L. 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.

Casey ATKINS's picture

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.

Deleted Account'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.

Casey ATKINS's picture

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.

Deleted Account's picture

*You* can't? Maybe you should switch to Sony. They don't even need lenses to photograph DNA evidence left by astronauts going back to the first lunar landing! ;-)

Rick Pappas's picture

In a "prolonged manner"? Someone who was photographing with ill intent on their mind would have their equipment preset to do their work and be on their way in moments. Meanwhile, I'm there as they walk away getting my camera on the tripod, taking meter readings, doing precise focusing using live view, getting my remote shutter RX/TX setup and waiting for the light to be right for my shot so that I can hope to get "Explored" on Flickr!!! LMFAO!

Allen Turner's picture

As an architectural photographer, I have to deal with this sort of thing EVERY TIME I shoot exteriors.

It was as if a light switch was flipped......The day after 911, I was shooting a job for a client in the early morning hours. The first employee that showed up in the parking lot walked over to me and asked with the most deadly serious tone, "Are you a terrorist?"

Now when I go to shoot jobs I make sure to notify the building's owner, facilities manager, head of security and local police department. Even then, I still have to deal with aspiring DHS field agents that want to give me the third degree.

I have however figured out one thing.... You can shoot buildings all day long hand holding a camera. But as soon as a tripod comes out, its game on lol.

Cheers

Deleted Account's picture

I photograph government facilities. They're informed I'm coming and what I'll be photographing. Sometimes they let me go on my own; other times they'll watch me with cameras; and still others, they insist on walking around with me everywhere I go. On a few occasions, I've stopped at an installation on the way to somewhere else to get a few quick shots from outside the fence. I know what's coming. Within a minute or two, at most, a car will speedily drive out the 12-foot, barbed wire gate and pull up next to me. After a short conversation and the production of my papers, they disappear again and I happily snap away. I've been turned away because the right person didn't contact the right person and even been trapped inside for hours until someone could be reached to come and get me. It's a job.

Matt Williams's picture

I was always careful to never really photograph around Wright Patt Air Force Base (in Dayton, OH where I grew up) because of stuff like this. Even if I was legally allowed to do so. BUT, this tweet takes it way too far. It just mentions "infrastructure" and "facilities". Not just government facilities, but anything.

It's a very irresponsible tweet. And it mentions "personnel". Part of me wonders if this isn't partly done to curtail people filming the police.

It just isn't, in any reality, going to end well. Best case: tons of resources are wasted for no reason. Worst case: someone (likely a POC) ends up shot. And you know how many terrorists will be caught because of this? Zero.

Deleted Account's picture

Really? I think the part of you that "wonders if this isn't partly done to curtail people filming the police" needs to stop watching Robert Redford movies. (◔_◔)

Matt Williams's picture

1) Robert Redford is a good actor, though admittedly not a huge draw for me like, say, Paul Newman is

2) That comment was a little in jest. I don't actually believe that is the reason for, or even necessary one reason for, the tweet. But, you know darn well that there are many people who are not happy that citizens are freely able to film police.

Deleted Account's picture

He *is* a good actor (I loved The Horse Whisperer but didn't care so much for Pete's Dragon) but some of his movies are a bid too conspiratorial for me. Agreed, Paul Newman is much better. :-)

Actually, I think the police were a bit leery at first but subsequent video, both from body cameras and cell phones, have exonerated police more often than not.

Matt Williams's picture

The Sting, Butch Cassidy, and All is Lost are great movies.

I'm sure that more police have been exonerated because of body cams and such, because a majority of cops are good people. I guess I should have said that *certain* police don't like the idea of body cams or people filming them. Because, obviously, body cams/people filming have shown some police doing horrible things, like straight up murder. But I'm certainly not going to say that most cops are like that. It's almost like that saying "a few bad apples spoil the bunch". I will say, though, that more police need to speak up when they see a fellow officer doing something wrong. And the tide is slowly turning where they are speaking up, thankfully.

Deleted Account's picture

Okay. Now expanding upon this small concession, is it possible for you to do the same for the people (and they ARE just people) working for DHS?

You may have seen me write this before but, I would rather give people the benefit of the doubt, and be wrong, than to assume the worst of them and be wrong. That's not to say I've never been guilty of both! ;-)

Matt Williams's picture

Yeah I'm sure most of the people who work for the DHS are totally great people. But, obviously, they didn't all come together and vote on whether to send this tweet. When I criticize the DHS for something like this, I'm criticizing the people in charge, who make decisions. And no doubt, Trump was also involved in this. It could even be primarily because of Trump (who has already tweeted himself that the press is the enemy of the people).

I'd rather give people the benefit of the doubt too. But sometimes people screw up in irresponsible ways, and they should be chastised for it. Though, I'll never give Trump the benefit of the doubt about anything. He's long past that.

Casey ATKINS's picture

That's kind of funny.

Anyone with a bit of photography knowledge would know a tripod is just to hold the camera still for various reasons (long exposure, minimize any motion blur, being able blend multiple exposures, ect..). But if you just needed technical details about a building for an attack or something you don't need a tripod to ensure you're getting a clean artistic and technically pristine shot.

Allen Turner's picture

That's the problem my friend.... Apparently, not a lot of people have enough photography knowledge to make that association with the tripod, much less common sense in general. There just seems to be so many people trapped in a cloud of fear that it keeps them from thinking rationally. Would a terrorist conducting an operation with the intent on doing harm on a large scale, take the risk of setting up a tripod with a technical camera tethered to a laptop on a c-stand??
I just get a bit frustrated, but I do understand that some people are afraid (rightly so I guess) account for, and work around it.

Jacques Cornell's picture

What are my thoughts? I'll tell you my thoughts. They're the same damn thoughts I had for years after 9/11, when every knee-jerk totalitarian and vigilante and paranoiac in NYC pestered and threatened me simply for making photos in public spaces. Those thoughts are: "F&^% you! I'm a goddam American exercising my goddam American rights, and if you don't like what you see, shut your goddam eyes, because I"m not taking this sh!t from you!"

Yeah, I'm a little sore about it. But you know what? If it hasn't happened to you yet, let me assure you, after the 36th such incident you'll be ready to bite someone's head off, too.

Jacques Cornell's picture

I assume Ann Quimby is not a New York resident, or if she is, she never attempted to make anything more than snapshots on the streets of New York in the years immediately after 9/11.

Mike Dixon's picture

What part of "...in an unusual or covert manner" did you not understand?

Jacques Cornell's picture

ALL of it. Your random observer will think pretty much any photography that doesn't involve a group of people is "covert". Trust me, I've been there, been harassed, and had the cops called on me. See my previous post. This absurdly vague DHS alert is a recipe for ignorant vigilantism and conflict.

Deleted Account's picture

Your position seems to be, 'Since there are unreasonable people who abuse advice, the advice is unreasonable.' I'm not agreeing or disagreeing; I think everything requires common sense but, as you reasonably implied, that can't always be expected.

Jacques Cornell's picture

No, my position is that the "advice" is so vague and broad as to be not just useless but pointlessly alarming and likely to incite needless conflict.

Deleted Account's picture

I think it has to be vague. We'll see if anything comes of it. Personally, I'll be surprised if anyone pays it any attention or, if anyone does, they'll be the kind who call 911 because their pizza took too long to be delivered. ;-)

More comments