Mass surveillance: Time to heed the voices in the wilderness

It’s time to “draw a line under” the debate Edward Snowden sparked with his revelations about intrusive government mass surveillance and “move on”. So the UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told a meeting of national security and intelligence professionals last month.

He was wrong. In fact, the debate is only beginning.

Just two days after Hammond’s speech, the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee released a report which concluded that British laws governing intelligence agencies and mass surveillance require a complete overhaul to make them more transparent and understandable. Amnesty International called the country’s regulation of government surveillance “an inadequate mess”.

This is not mere rhetoric. The organization is in the process of bringing fresh legal action against both the UK and US governments to challenge their use of indiscriminate mass surveillance programmes to hoover up our communications – emails, calls, internet searches, contact lists, phone locations, webcam images and more – on an unprecedented scale.

Both these challenges proceed from the basis that such programmes constitute a fundamental breach of the human rights to privacy and freedom of expression. As far as human rights organizations are concerned, the surveillance of their confidential communications with their contacts also has grave implications for their ability to carry out their day-to-day work.

Conversation piece

Digital rights experts say that the debate over these issues – not just with governments, but with the powerful tech giants behind the internet – will be crucial to ensure that the online world remains a place where rights are protected.

One of these growing number of voices in the wilderness is Andrew Puddephatt, Executive Director of Global Partners Digital. An expert on freedom of expression policy and practice for decades, he has focused extensively on digital rights. National governments, as well as intergovernmental organizations such as the Council of Europe, the Commonwealth, UNDP and UNESCO, have sought his advice.

According to Puddephatt, those fighting to ensure the right to privacy is respected online are “stuck between Scylla and Charybdis” – facing off against restrictive governments on the one hand and profit-seeking corporations on the other. But he is adamant that the dialogue needs to continue – not only with national governments, but also with the private sector.

“I think we need to be talking to the companies who are at the forefront of innovation, not in an antagonistic way, but just to say it’s just useful for us to understand where you’re going with the technology. To have … a conversation, about any potential human rights implications that we see,” said Puddephatt.

Massive transformation

When it was founded, the internet was seen as a space where free speech and open debate could flourish. Today, that vision is under attack. And the human rights implications are far-ranging.

“There is massive transformation going on all around us, but we’re like rabbits in the headlights,” Puddephatt warned.

he internet and the ever-expanding range of new applications it hosts – social media networks, video-sharing platforms and the like – have revolutionized the way people communicate. As mobile devices gradually take the place of desktop computers, the impact of such changes will become even more pronounced.

This scenario has broken down traditional hierarchies and power structures, said Puddephatt. It has, in his terms, “democratized” freedom of expression – giving rise to a series of changes as transformational as those inspired by the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century.

Digital rights under attack

In the past, governments sought to control the actual content of communications themselves. They could censor individual texts or publications, or remove the people responsible for them, either through detention, disappearance or death. Surveillance was a matter of physically snooping around or tapping into individual phone lines or networks.

But the very way the internet is built – an interconnected series of protocols – now allows governments to interfere with how entire populations can access the means to publish and share information. This is already happening – for example when China blocks access to the websites of certain news or human rights organizations.

The popularity of social networks like Twitter and video platforms like YouTube also means that governments can severely restrict the space for sharing and publishing ideas by targeting just a few internet platforms – as Turkey has in the past.

On a much deeper level, though, some governments have developed tools to tap into the physical infrastructure of the internet and indiscriminately scoop up massive amounts of private data about people’s communications and whereabouts.

These types of mass surveillance programmes – practiced by the USA and the UK among others – were the focus of Edward Snowden’s shocking revelations in June 2013.

The scale and pace of change

But this is just the tip of the iceberg, warned Puddephatt. He said the private sector is now doing “10 times” more surveillance than governments. For them, harvesting and storing massive amounts of personal data isn’t something that’s done in the shadows – it’s actually part of their business model. A key challenge for human rights organizations will be to keep up with the frenetic pace of technological innovations and their huge implications for the right to privacy and other human rights.

According to Puddephatt, even the cutting edge groups doing digital rights advocacy are only now catching up to and responding to transformations that have already taken place.

He said few organizations have even considered the massive human rights implications of tomorrow’s technologies that are already in research and development. Innovations already being rolled out or on the near horizon include 3D printing, wearable technology, artificial intelligence and the “internet of things” – a digital network of everyday objects and devices and connected to and communicating with each other.

A call to action

As part of the response to these growing concerns, Amnesty International is expanding its work on technology and human rights. The organization has just launched #UnfollowMe, a global campaign against indiscriminate mass surveillance, to challenge governments that want to invade privacy and restrict freedoms on an industrial scale.