Perhaps 2014 is
not quite 1984, though. This course explores how American law facilitates electronic
surveillance—but also substantially constrains it. You will learn the legal
procedures that police and intelligence agencies have at their disposal, as well as the security
and privacy safeguards built into those procedures. The material also provides
brief, not-too-geeky technical explanations of some common surveillance
We will begin with a brief overview of how surveillance fits into the American legal system. We will also discuss how surveillance issues can be litigated.
II. The Basics of Surveillance Law
Next, we will review established police surveillance procedures. Using telephone technology as a simple starting point, we will work through various sorts of data that investigators might seek to access—and the constitutional and statutory safeguards on that data.
III. Applying Surveillance Law to Information Technology
Having learned the basics, we will turn to more modern technologies. We will discuss snooping on email, web browsing, and mobile phone location, as well as hacking into devices.
IV. Compelled Assistance to Law Enforcement
What happens when data is technically protected? In this section, we will talk about the government’s (limited) ability to mandate backdoors and to require decryption.
VI. Controversial NSA Programs
In the final section, we will review the conduct and legality of controversial National Security Agency programs. We will discuss in detail the domestic phone metadata program, PRISM, and “upstream” Internet monitoring.
The class will consist primarily of lectures, each about 5-10 minutes long. There will be occasional assigned quizzes; they are intended to make sure you understand the material and should not be too tricky. You will also be expected to participate in forum discussions.
There is no required textbook for the course. All readings will be provided online.
Keep in mind that this area of law is evolving rapidly. If you encounter an explanation that seems outdated, it probably is. When this material was last offered at Stanford, for example, the law changed multiple times during the course.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are you offering this course?
Understanding government surveillance requires a blend of arcane law and computer science; even senior policymakers routinely botch specifics. We want to provide a comprehensive, accurate, and accessible explanation of current practices. Our aim is to raise the level of discourse on government surveillance.
What background is expected for enrolling in this course?
None! Just be willing to learn some law. And a little computer science.
Is the course technically robust against surveillance?
It can be! If you’d prefer to follow along without creating an account, you can access the “preview” version of the course. For even greater protection, you can load the preview using the Tor anonymizing network. And if you’d prefer to avoid Coursera servers entirely, we’re also hosting noninteractive course content on our own website that’s configured to not log requests. You can access it via HTTPS (https://surveillancelaw.org/) or as a Tor hidden service (http://7vrl523532rjjznj.onion/).
Can I suggest material for the course?
Absolutely, feedback is very welcome. Please reach out to @jonathanmayer.
Does the course advocate for or against government surveillance?
Neither. Course staff have worked with law enforcement agencies and civil liberties groups. Our aim is to present the law as it stands, with the best articulation of competing views. We expect there will be vibrant accompanying discussion.
Why is the best (i.e. the NSA) saved for last?
The course begins with police surveillance for several reasons. First, the surrounding law is much better developed—it’s much older, much more transparent, and much more frequently litigated. Second, foreign intelligence law builds upon the framework of police surveillance law; understanding the latter is essential to understanding the former.
Is Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credit available to attorneys?
We are looking into it. Stay tuned.
Will the course include discussion of current events?
Definitely. Surveillance practices frequently make headlines; we will share our thoughts throughout the course.
What if the law changes during the course?
We will post an update. There is a good chance that it will happen.