In a Geneva room full of representatives from nations around the world, some of the world's largest privacy organizations, including EFF, today warned the United Nations of the dangers of the mass Internet spying being conducted by its own members. We used the side-event on privacy to officially launch our 13 Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, which is intended to return the rule of law to these, and future, digital surveillance programs.
We wrote earlier this week about how the surveillance controversy has been emerging at the international level, but the momentum for seriously considering the damage it wreaks on human rights has been building for some time at the UN Earlier this year, Frank LaRue, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, wrote a detailed report explicitly linking free expression and privacy on the Internet. It listed how essential safeguards to free speech can be stripped away by the consequences of pervasive digital surveillance—and the fear that such spying might be taking place.
We now know, in some detail, that those fears are often justified and that data-collection projects are indeed being conducted on the global Internet by, at the very least, the United Kingdom and the United States. With that disturbing revelation, other nation states are waking up to the consequences.
At the UN side event today, LaRue called for the UN to step up its work on surveillance with a special expert and session at the Human Rights Council. In launching the Principles, Katitza Rodriguez, EFF's International Rights Director, urged states to bring their surveillance laws into compliance now wth existing human-rights standards, as spelled out in the 13 principles.
"We must put an end to unchecked, suspicionless, mass spying online and worldwide. Privacy is a human right, and needs to be protected as fiercely as all other rights."
Will the assembled states of the UN collectively take a new look at their own spying apparatus? All governments, big or small, have some element within them that craves the power of the NSA and GCHQ programs. Obliging the civilian side of those administrations to rein back their own spymasters is certainly going to take more than just critical appraisals at an intergovernmental agency.
But to even begin that process of reform, critics, lawmakers and jurists need new language to describe a new problem, with links to established precedents they can reach for guidance and continuity. The NSA revelations have shown that with some deliberate pretense, modern digital wiretapping can pretend to obey our old laws, while violently breaking with their spirit. In an enviroment where "content" is carefully fenced away, but equally invasive "metadata" is for free for the authorities to stripmine, and where the bulk collection, analysis and storage of communications is acceptable as long as the human analysts at the top of the chain are given the weakest of oversight, the old civil-liberties framings are rendered meaningless.
That's what the principles are for. Now, the global critics of unchecked communications surveillance can reach for language that describes what's wrong using the undeniable framing of international human rights law, rather than artful constructions of the intelligence services. Once we have at least the language to describe the problem, we can set about correcting it. To fix it properly, we need to fix it everywhere, and for everyone in the world.