Surveillance Technology: Watching People Everywhere

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Protesters stand outside the office of NSO Group, the developer of Pegasus, near Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 25, 2021.

Photo Credit: Nir Elias/Reuters


Published at the dawn of the Cold War, George Orwell’s 1984 offered a stark warning about the dire personal and societal impacts of mass surveillance. Orwell’s words proved prescient, as many of his dystopian predictions would begin to take shape in the ensuing decades. Governments and corporations have amassed unprecedented and largely unchecked information-gathering power, making true privacy an increasingly aspirational endeavor. Both authoritarian and democratic regimes have weaponized cutting-edge software to spy and suppress. Today, a software named Pegasus is many despots’ tool of choice. Developed by an Israeli firm for the stated purpose of combating crime, Pegasus can covertly breach a target’s device and track their calls, texts, and location. Less advanced malware requires an unassuming victim to open a virus-laden link or email to gain access; Pegasus’s ‘zero-click’ exploit bypasses this requirement completely. Governments have wasted no time abusing this power, spying on reporters, officials, and activists. Revelations about Pegasus have revived conversations about the dire and unexplored free speech consequences of this trend. 

A Brief History of Surveillance

Theoretical Foundations
History of American Mass Surveillance
Contemporary Crises

Point / Counterpoint

Discussion Questions

  1. When is surveillance justified, if at all? What differentiates ethical monitoring from abusive espionage? 
  2. To what extent does an ideal balance between privacy and security exist? Is this trade-off a false one?
  3. What should be done to regulate government surveillance? What protections should be afforded to civilians? Are such protections futile? 
  4. Governments aren’t the only powerful institutions that engage in mass surveillance. Private tech behemoths harvest and commercialize troves of consumer data—a practice so widespread and systematized that experts dub it “surveillance capitalism.” How do government and corporate surveillance differ? Do they pose similar threats? Do they warrant similar solutions?
  5. In what ways may recent innovations in artificial intelligence impact surveillance, especially relating to guarantees of privacy, Free Speech, and press freedom?


Click on these themes below: National Security + Social Media + Legal Action

Discuss: What does this confluence of stories with these filters tell us about Free Speech issues surrounding surveillance, national security, and privacy?

Tracker Entries



This course module was prepared by Jaime Moore-Carrillo, who joined the Free Speech Project in 2019 and served as principal research assistant for two years. The Boston native now works as a reporter.