Surveillance Law

Learn how police and intelligence agencies can access your data, and how the law (might) protect you! Hackers, attorneys, and concerned citizens are all welcome.

About The Course

It’s easy to be cynical about government surveillance. In recent years, a parade of Orwellian disclosures have been making headlines. The FBI, for example, is hacking into computers that run anonymizing software. The NSA is vacuuming up domestic phone records. Even local police departments are getting in on the act, tracking cellphone location history and intercepting signals in realtime.

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 methods.

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 ( 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.

  • What areas of law does this course cover?
    Most of the material draws on the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). We will also briefly discuss the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the Fifth Amendment.

  • 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?
    Yes. Stanford Law School is able to extend California credit; we will provide instructions once the course begins. If you are an attorney licensed in another jurisdiction, please check your local rules to determine if California reciprocity is available.

  • 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.

  • Can I repurpose the course materials?
    Absolutely. The entire course is offered under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

  • Does the course remix work by others?
    Yes. We have compiled a table of remixed content, with sources and licenses.

  • Can you help me with a legal problem?
    Course staff are not acting as your lawyers and do not provide legal advice. If you need legal assistance, you should retain an attorney.