Violations of Civil Liberties with Government Surveillance

If government faces threats to national security, it is valuable to balance the need to preserve security with civil liberties. When dealing with emerging issues, the government often violated civil liberties with the surveillance practice. The government surveillance of the civil rights activists, such as Cesar Estrada Chavez, the leader of the United Farm Workers, and Hedy Epstein, the Holocaust survivor and Black Lives Matter activist, are bright examples of civil rights violations in the name of national security.

During the 1960s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Hoover did not approve of the Civil Rights Movement, believing it was a communist plot: the fear of communism expansion, the Cold War, and the arms race created the historical circumstances of government surveillance implementation. The government rationale was the “Red Scare”: since 1924, the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, focused on identifying communists and radical anarchists. The surveillance case started in 1965 with an inquiry about Chavez’s alleged communist background (Gutiérrez, 2019).

The FBI surveillance of Cesar Estrada Chavez was preceded by expanding the FBI’s responsibilities in domestic counterespionage, espionage, and sabotage and foundation of COINTELPRO projects (Arrigo, 2018). Although the surveillance case was marked by the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting various types of discrimination, politicians still saw social activists as a threat. The case end coincided with the Freedom of Information Act introduction (1966), allowing citizens to see the files with their personal information. The FBI attended the United Farm Workers’ rallies and kept regular checks on the group (Brown et al., 2019). The FBI also had its informants and applied direct interrogations.

The stated example of surveillance should be examined as a part of anti-communist action to show its impact on U.S. society. The main effect of such surveillance was the rise of paranoia and hysteria. The anti-communist implication of surveillance was an outrageous example of civil liberties violations. In national security frames, the knowledge of being under supervision could result in fading of espionage activity. However, it is debatable because espionage also became more elaborated and invisible. People criticized the FBI for its surveillance application on civil rights leaders: under Hoover, the bureau acted independently without external political control (Arrigo, 2018). I suppose that lengthy surveillance in Chavez’s case was excessive because his activity was a natural reaction to the issues existing in the U. S. society.

Hedy Epstein frequently communicated with the FBI’s Civil Rights Division on discrimination cases. However, in 2006, she became the subject of surveillance due to her association with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (Brown et al., 2019). The surveillance implementation is connected with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Epstein was devoted to eliminating the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The rationale for implementing government surveillance was the investigation of another activist’s death.

The FBI used the technology of webpages and weblog monitoring (Brown et al., 2019). The most prominent legislation acts connected with this case are the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 and the FISA Amendment Act of 2008. After revealing the matter, the U. S. society was discouraged, but I believe that a murder investigation could include such measures. I think that it is the case when civil liberties should give way to national security issues.

Thus, the FBI uses its power to investigate suspicious ideas and crimes. Sometimes surveillance seems reasonable, sometimes it is unnecessary and paranoic. The stated cases of Chavez and Epstein show various sides of it: the searching of Soviet ties during the period of burning social issues of workers’ rights protection with paranoia and resistance to accepting the reality and the investigation of a crime happened in the foreign country. In both cases, civil rights were violated, but every surveillance case has a different weight in terms of national security.


Arrigo, B. A. (Ed.). (2018). The SAGE encyclopedia of surveillance, security, and privacy. SAGE Publications.

Brown, J. P., Lipton, B. C. D., & Michael Morisy, M. (Eds.). (2019). Activists under surveillance: The FBI files. The MIT Press.

Gutiérrez, J. A. (2019). The eagle has eyes: The FBI surveillance of César Estrada Chávez of the United Farm Workers Union of America, 1965–1975. Michigan State University Press.

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LawBirdie. "Violations of Civil Liberties with Government Surveillance." September 9, 2023.