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Stanford University

Surveillance Law

Stanford University via Coursera


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.


I. Introduction
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.

V. The Structure of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Law
The law that applies to foreign intelligence activities runs parallel to the law that applies to police activities. We will compare the two systems of law and review key distinctions. The section places particular emphasis on Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, and Executive Order 12333.

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.

Taught by

Jonathan Mayer


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5.0 rating, based on 3 reviews

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  • Bobby Brady completed this course, spending 2 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be easy.

    Stanford professor Jonathan Mayer is one of the leading figures in privacy & surveillance law right now, and for that fact alone this course is worth its weight in gold.
    The tone is very objective and avoids taking any sides. There is a lot of legal language and terms but Jonathan works thru it all slowly with you. He covers all of the controversial topics such as PRISM, bulk collection of emails and metadata, foreign surveillance etc. There are weekly quizzes with case law research and you need to get a 70% or higher for a certificate. Hardest part of the class was staying on task and completing before the deadlines.
  • Jesse Brambila

    Jesse Brambila completed this course, spending 6 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be easy.

    Jonathan is clearly a subject matter expert, who imparts his knowledge in a direct, interesting and sincere manner. His lectures are well structured, and very well presented. Jonathan's lecture format is free of unnecessary elements. His visual...
  • Anonymous Coward completed this course, spending 2 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be easy.

    This course is an awesome, yet easy-going introduction to Surveillance Law. The number of laws regulating surveillance on Americans is daunting, but the professor makes it easy to understand.

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