2013 in ReviewAs the year draws to a close, EFF is looking back at the major trends influencing digital rights in 2013 and discussing where we are in the fight for free expression, innovation, fair use, and privacy. Click here to read other blog posts in this series.

In early 2013, EFF joined with organizations around the world to try to develop a fairly straightforward set of principles for applying human rights law to modern tools of communications surveillance around the world. The basic ideas seemed obvious:

  • Note that human rights law doesn’t allow mass, untargeted spying on ordinary, innocent people;
  • Secret laws are wrong;
  • Computers collecting and analyzing Internet traffic is just as much "surveillance" as a person peeping through a window;
  • Metadata collection and aggregation can be just as privacy invasive as content review;
  • No-one should be denied privacy rights just because they live in another country from those who are spying on them;
  • States can't dodge their obligations to guard the privacy of their own citizens by swapping snooped data with other nations or private companies;
  • States shouldn't undermine the security of us all by undermining encryption or creating back doors.

When EFF and hundreds of other NGOs began articulating these ideas in the summer of 2012, we saw them primarily as a way for lawmakers around the world to improve their own surveillance laws under a common set of human rights standards. We had no idea that Edward Snowden would step forward and shine a light on the chilling details of how States are already violating international human rights standards.

But because of Snowden’s releases, instead of just being a guide for future law, the principles we created—now called the Necessary and Proportionate Principles—quickly became a touchstone for elected officials and experts needing a way to explain why NSA and other intelligence agencies were on a very wrong path. (If you haven't signed the Principles, you can do so now).

Since the Spring, the Principles have gained a lot of traction:

  • In September at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 24th session in Geneva, EFF along with Privacy International and Access officially launched the Principles during a side-meeting hosted by Germany and other concerned countries.
  • In October, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights held its first hearing scrutinizing U.S. mass surveillance practices. EFF wrote a joint brief explaining how some of the NSA's programs impact the rights of non-U.S. persons, also drawing from the Principles. We hope that the Inter-American system will join leaders worldwide in condemning U.S. mass surveillance activities—at home and abroad—in the strongest terms.
  • And the biggest of all, on December 18th, 193 Member States of the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the first Resolution on the right to privacy, ordering a human rights analysis of digital surveillance law. The Resolution drew strongly from our Principles and we look forward to further use of them in the upcoming report.

In 2014, EFF will continue to spread the principles far and wide. But while law and policy are important, true security will also depend on technical decisions, including making available easier-to-use encryption for users. Companies also have a role to play by securing their networks, limiting the information they collect, and standing with their users when governments seek access to user data.

Working together, law, policy, and technology can serve as a foundation for a new era of private and secure digital communications.

This article is part of our 2013 Year in Review series; read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2013.