EFF has joined over three dozen civil society groups in seeking assurances that our collective work on trade negotiations is not being surveilled by the National Security Agency (NSA) or other United States security agencies. In a letter sent this week to NSA Director Keith Alexander and U.S. Trade Rep Michael Froman, we asked whether the NSA is spying on organizations and individuals advocating for the public interest in U.S. trade policy. We also demanded answers on whether the US Trade Representative has requested this data, if they have included communications with foreign nationals, and if that surveillance has occurred within U.S. borders.

This letter was the result of an article in the New York Times that revealed the NSA's wide-reaching efforts to collect data for all sorts of purposes are driven in part by the agency’s “customers” — a range of other government agencies that includes the U.S. trade office.

The NSA's purpose for surveillance extends way beyond the purpose of fighting terrorism, including any "information with respect to a foreign power...that relates to...the conduct of the foreign affairs of the United States." Since negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (see our analysis of the new leaked text) and the EU-US trade agreement, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (called T-TIP for short), are held in secret, it's even more unsettling that our private communications may have been intercepted and handed over to an executive agency that has been enthusiastic about allowing corporations to dictate its core policy agenda. We and our colleagues co-operate internationally to fight against opaque policy-making processes to ensure that all Internet users' rights are respected and upheld in these powerful bodies of international law. If the NSA is truly monitoring all of our electronic communications, the agency could be using that information to sabotage our work in this policy space.

Groups that have signed the letter include Center for Media and Democracy, the Communication Workers of America, Fight for the Future, Greenpeace, Knowledge Ecology International, and Public Citizen. It reads:

Core American principles ranging from the right to privacy to the right to petition our government are at stake. Simply put, we believe that our organizations as well as all others advocating on trade policy matters have right to an assurance that their operations are not under surveillance by U.S. government agencies. We trust you agree.

This letter has been sent as EU-US trade delegates meet for the second time in Brussels to negotiate the terms of the TTIP agreement. Like its counterpart in the Pacific region, they plan to make it an expansive agreement that will likely include digital regulations such as copyright enforcement and data protection.

Prominent EU officials have themselves expressed serious reservations about continuing talks, following NSA revelations showing extensive US spying efforts of European leaders. European Commissioner Viviane Reding recently warned that the US will have to make strong efforts to rebuild their political trust, or else the negotiations could be jeopardized. She also stated that data protection issues should not be on the table, as users' privacy is a fundamental right that is not negotiable.

Digital rights organization, La Quadrature du Net, published a leaked document this summer that gave us a glimpse of negotiators' plan to regulate the Internet and undermine users' right to privacy. It revealed how EU delegates intended to set new rules around liability for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the transfer and processing of users’ personal online data. There is no reason why such policies effecting users' right to privacy should be decided these secretive venues, which is why La Quadrature du Net has called for documents related to the TTIP negotiations be released to the public immediately.

Are governments handing over supposedly confidential documents to selected business partners, while also undermining others' privacy through espionage and surveillance? They cannot pretend that spying on legitimate pressure groups is part of the public interest, or a lawful part of their work. The NSA and USTR need to provide a clear assurance that it has not crossed a line in trade policy-making, and explain where it believes that line to lie.

Civil Society Letter on NSA Surveillance of Organizations for Fair Trade Policy


We need to demand that our lawmakers oppose fast track, ask them to call for a hearing, and exercise their authority to oversee the U.S. trade office’s secret copyright agenda.