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Civil society must act against unlawful surveillance over Internet users

16:44 | 15.04.2014 | Analytic


15 April 2014. PenzaNews. The Internet mass surveillance program implemented by the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States has once more become the focus of interest of experts and the global community after the speech made by Edward Snowden, former NSA contractor, on PACE session on 8 April via videolink.

Civil society must act against unlawful surveillance over Internet users

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In his speech, he stated that the indiscriminate worldwide network surveillance does not improve protection against terrorism. For example, it did not help prevent Boston marathon bombings in 2013, despite the warnings from Russian authorities, and a failed attempt to detonate explosives on board of a plane en route from Europe to the US in 2009, even after the terrorist’s father informed the security agencies about the preparations.

“Despite the extraordinary intrusions of the NSA and EU national governments into private communications world-wide, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allowed to board an airplane traveling from Europe to the United States in 2009. The 290 persons on board were not saved by mass surveillance, but by his own incompetence, when he failed to detonate the device,” Edward Snowden elaborated.

According to his statement, the capabilities to track almost any message in the Internet violate the unalienable rule of freedom from unwarranted intrusion into private life. In addition to that, former NSA contractor pointed out that the mass surveillance system is more and more often used for reasons unrelated to national security, such as economic espionage, compromising material collection and spying over civil and human rights organizations.

This statement has already caused a massive public outcry; for example, Human Rights Watch named the mass surveillance program “an example of behavior the US government condemns around the world.”

“If it’s true that the NSA spied on groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, it’s outrageous, and indicative of the overreach that US law allows to security agencies. Such actions would again show why the US needs to overhaul its system of indiscriminate surveillance,” explained Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch.

In his turn, Nicolas Baudez, representative of International Federation for Human Rights, noted that mass surveillance violates human rights spelled out in international documents.

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks,” the expert quoted the twelfth article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948.

In his opinion, no government will agree to limit their intelligence agencies in terms of data collection, which allows the latter to act like “information addicts.”

In addition to that, Nicolas Baudez pointed out that many countries have almost no real ways to react to the NSA’s activities.

“No legal action can be taken, since mass surveillance is done out of any legal framework in the first place. The EU can't do more than condemning the US Governement for instance,” he explained.

However, from the expert’s point of view, the situation has changed considerably since last year because of the information revealed by Edward Snowden.

“Now the citizens know about mass surveillance. A lot more people are now concerned by those issues, and citizens can start organize, learn how to gain a bit more privacy, and start fighting it,” Nicolas Baudez said.

Concerning the reaction of global community, Grégoire Pouget, Head of New Media Desk of Reporters Without Borders, pointed out that the information revealed by Edward Snowden has unraveled a new threat for the global network.

“Before the revelations by Edward Snowden, the biggest problem was censorship: now, we know for sure that one the biggest problems is surveillance, because when you can survey the network, you have a kind of control over it,” the expert emphasized.

He noted that in 2014, the NSA was added to the yearly list called “Enemies of the Internet” published by Reporters Without Borders. This list includes the organizations that commit censorship or surveillance in the worldwide network.

“We think that this institution and massive surveillance that it has collected has led to self-censorship for a lot of citizens [of the US] and a lot of journalists,” Grégoire Pouget explained.

Describing the possible measures of protection against USA surveillance, the expert emphasized that those who are concerned with their privacy should first avoid using the services from companies located in the USA, such as Google (Gmail, GoogleTalk) and Microsoft (Skype), and encrypt their mail and files.

“But what you have to keep in mind is, if you are really targeted by the state, what you should try to do is avoid using the Internet,” Reporters Without Borders representative pointed out.

Continuing the subject of protection from mass Internet surveillance, Mike Rispoli, Communications Manager of Privacy International, noted that there are other effective technical measures for protecting privacy online, such as using SSL and anonymous browsing through Tor system.

However, in his opinion, restoring the atmosphere of peace in the Internet will require special measures.

“Privacy and security of digital communications have been undermined by the intelligence agencies. We need strict laws and protocols that put the privacy, security and users first. […] The best set of protections comes from when these measures are embedded within communications infrastructures,” the expert explained in an interview to PenzaNews agency.

According to him, dynamic actions by people towards the government and intelligence agencies, as well as legal and political decisions, are needed to solve the current situation.

Pointing out the vital role of public reaction, Mike Rispoli noted that indiscriminate collection of data on Internet users poses a major threat. According to him, frequently the most dangerous kind of data is not the contents of phone calls and discussions, but the accompanying metadata, which may include called phone numbers, call duration, visited website addresses, browser version and plugin information, and so on.

“The collection of metadata can reveal some of the most intimate details of our lives, including where we go, who we talk to, and what we do on a daily basis. When governments collect this information from us, it can be, and often is, more invasive than the content of our communications. Mass surveillance of metadata absolutely interferes with the right to privacy, and laws or policies that allow for indiscriminate, blanket retention on this scale are completely unacceptable,” the expert emphasized.

In his opinion, surveillance can only be legitimate when it is conducted according to strict norms of law that protect people against violations of their rights. As an example of such norms, Mike Rispoli named the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights Abuses to Communications Surveillance, which were endorsed by over 400 civil societies.

“[This document] outlines the principles that States must adhere to in order to conduct surveillance in accordance to human rights law. These include, but are not limited to, necessity, proportionality, competent judicial oversight, due process, and user notification,” the expert quoted some of the key points from the Principles.

In Mike Rispoli’s opinion, information revealed by Edward Snowden helped spark a critical debate on mass surveillance issue, which is currently in full swing.

“What has changed is the way the people approach these issues, and that trust in Government, from the State’s own secrecy and illegitimate programs, has been broken,” Privacy International representative emphasized.

In his turn, Solomon Sacco, Senior Legal Advisor for Amnesty International, expressed his belief that the debate on mass surveillance may lead to certain results.

“It is hoped that the debate that has occurred since these revelations will push all states towards amending domestic laws and ensuring that surveillance is conducted lawfully and in compliance with international human rights law,” he said.

According to the expert, global communications data collection violates the right to privacy protected by such regulations as Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

“Indiscriminate mass surveillance can never be strictly necessary and proportionate to the legitimate aim of combatting serious crime,” Solomon Sacco said, criticizing the current accepted practice.

In his opinion, targeted surveillance can be a more legitimate alternative to indiscriminate mass surveillance; however, the former must be, among other points, authorized by a sufficiently foreseeable law, based on reasonable suspicion, be authorized by warrant from judicial body, and be subject to judicial and democratic control and oversight.

Dwelling on the question of protection against mass surveillance, the expert noted that, despite the existence of technical measures, Internet users’ privacy must first be protected by legal measures.

“It is more important that states develop stronger legal protections against illegal surveillance and that all states should ensure that surveillance is conducted in accordance with [the principles described above],” Solomon Sacco emphasized.

According to Volker Tripp, Policy Officer at Digitale Gesellschaft civil organization, mass collection of data on Internet users poses an incredible threat to the public.

“Mass surveillance allows to target anyone, anywhere, at anytime, and intrude deeply into their lives and personalities, completely eradicating the rights to privacy and the protection of personal data. Both are essential for the functioning of free and open societies,” the expert emphasized.

He explained that a substantial threat from mass Internet surveillance also lies in copious amounts of information on almost any individual, concentrated in the hands of a small group of people.

“This equals a concentration of power for an almost total control of the individual and society at large which is incompatible with the idea of a free democracy,” Volker Tripp explained.

In his opinion, the most effective ways of protection against mass surveillance right now are data avoidance and the use of cryptography.

“People should use browser plugins like HTTPS everywhere, Ghostery and NoScript in order to minimize the number of digital traces they leave when surfing the web,” Digitale Gesellschaft representative pointed out.

However, according to the expert, the true solution for the current problem can only be a political one.

“There need to be international agreements on standards for state surveillance based on human rights and the idea of a free and open society. In the interest of their own sovereignty, constitutional democratic states cannot allow this massive concentration of information and thus power in the hands of the executive branch. Therefore civil society must push their governments and parliaments to effectively end all kinds of unwarranted data collection and surveillance, and to tighten controls of the work and practices of security agencies,” Digitale Gesellschaft representative said.

“But we can be sure that security agencies will do anything in their power to prevent any retrenchment of their practices. So, civil society around the world must prepare for a long and ongoing political struggle in order to defend privacy and a free society in the digital age. Many steps are necessary on both the national and international levels and the more insistent the people advocate their demands the sooner political leaders will be forced to take effective measures against unwarranted mass surveillance,” Volker Tripp concluded.

In early June 2013, Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency contractor, provided The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers with classified information on mass surveillance of Internet communications all over the world by American security agencies.

The documents revealed by Edward Snowden caused a worldwide scandal and led to a fierce debate on legitimate status of mass Internet surveillance, which is still ongoing.

According to the NSA, up to 200 thousand classified documents may have ended up in the hands of journalists. In total, Edward Snowden copied 1.7 million government files.

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