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2014 - Communications surveillance in the digital age
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” - George Orwell, 1984
On 5 June 2013, the Washington Post and the Guardian simultaneously published documents that would rock the world. The documents, leaked by ex-National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, were not the first disclosures about the United States’ vast surveillance complex, but have arguably had the most impact.
Since mid-2013 there have been continuing revelations about the implementation by the United States (US) government of a series of programmes that constitute a system for global mass online surveillance. The initiative involves several agencies, primarily led by the National Security Agency (NSA), in close cooperation with companies that provide services through the internet. The system, which mostly targets foreigners and overseas communications, has affected private communications everywhere, from heads of state to ordinary web users.
This report examines the properties that make digital communication prone to surveillance and provides a general overview of where and how this surveillance takes place. For our purpose here, any internet or phone-based communication is considered to be digital communication, but we exclude from consideration other forms of surveillance such as direct observation or photography.
Years before Edward Snowden leaked his first document, human rights lawyers and activists were concerned about a dramatic expansion in law enforcement and foreign intelligence agencies’ efforts to spy on the digital world. It had become evident that legal protections had not kept pace with technological developments – that the state’s practical ability to spy on the world had developed in a way that permitted it to bypass the functional limits that have historically checked its ability to spy.
The internet is a critical way to push for the progressive realisation of people’s rights – but, through communications surveillance, its potential to be used as a tool for collective, democratic action is slowly being eroded.
Using the 13 International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance as a basis, this Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) considers the state of surveillance in 53 countries. Eight thematic reports frame the key issues at stake.
Online surveillance, security and privacy are concerns that have been central to human rights activists for years – but with the recent revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden of United States (US) government spying on citizens, the issues have reached global attention.