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From Romania’s Active Watch Media Monitoring Agency through Fight for the Future in the United States to the global World Association for Christian Communication, more than 300 organizations from around the globe have joined to fight unchecked government surveillance.
That would be the surveillance carried out by the U.S. National Security Agency and other governmental agencies. It’s a type of spying that employs technology that really hasn’t been addressed in the history of human rights and human-rights laws.
According to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in the past year, the NSA has captured data on virtually every American’s telephone calls. Recently it was revealed the agency spied on the use of online porn by certain individuals to influence their decisions.
Washington also reportedly has spied on its allies as well as its enemies, creating a backlash of distrust among world leaders. In response, for example, the European Union has voted to suspend data-sharing agreements with the U.S. regarding airline passengers and terror funding.
Now the more than 300 groups have banded to launch a new petition demanding an end to mass surveillance
The signatures, endorsing a document titled “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance,” will be given to the United Nations, world leaders, and other policy makers “who need to hear the voice of the people demanding an end to mass surveillance.”
It states that as “technologies that facilitate State surveillance of communications advance, States are failing to ensure that laws and regulations related to communications surveillance adhere to international human rights and adequately protect the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.”
The alliance has been marshaled by Privacy International, Access and the Electronic Front Foundation.
It says the 13 international principles represent a “growing global consensus that modern surveillance has gone too far and needs to be restrained.”
The principles include common-sense standards that surveillance must be legal, have a legitimate aim, be necessary and be adequate to reach the goals that have been set.
“The state must not adopt or implement a measure that interferes with the right to privacy in the absence of an existing publicly available legislative act, which meets a standard of clarity and precision that is sufficient to ensure that individuals have advance notice of and can foresee its applications,” the principles state.
Communications surveillance “must only be conducted when it is the only means of achieving a legitimate aim, or, when there are multiple means, it is the means least likely to infringe upon human rights.”
The petition also calls for proportionality, meaning decisions must weigh “the benefit sought to be achieved against the harm that would be caused to the individual’s rights and to other competing interests.”
And it cites the need for competent judicial authority that is separate from the authorities conducting communications surveillance, due process, user notification, transparency, public oversight, integrity and several layers of safeguards.
“The law should provide sufficient and significant civil and criminal penalties, protections for whistleblowers, and avenues for redress by affected individuals.”
The document, which invites additional groups and individuals to join, wants governments to follow the guidelines and acknowledge that communications surveillance threatens free speech and privacy and “should only be carried out in exceptional cases and under the rule of law.”
Electronic Front Foundation International Rights Director Katitza Rodriguez said surveillance “can and does threaten human rights.”
“Even laws intended to protect national security or combat crime will inevitably lead to abuse if left unchecked and kept secret,” she said. “The Necessary and Proportionate Principles set the groundwork for applying human rights values to digital surveillance techniques through transparency, rigorous oversight and privacy protections that transcend borders.”
In the same effort, the U.N. recently adopted a resolution, called “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age.”
Sponsored by 47 nations, the non-binding resolution “recognizes the importance of privacy and free expression and how these core principles of democracy may be threatened when governments exploit new communications technologies.”
“The United Nations resolution is a meaningful and very positive step for the privacy rights of individuals, no matter what country they call home,” Rodriguez said. “We will be watching to see if countries such as China, Russia or even the U.S. use the resolution to legitimize their mass surveillance programs. That is why it’s important for nations to go further and comply with the Necessary and Proportionate principles.”
EFF noted that recently the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Nivay Pillay, emphasized the importance of applying human right standards and democratic safeguards to surveillance and law enforcement activities.
“While concerns about national security and criminal activity may justify the exceptional and narrowly tailored use of surveillance programs,” Pillay said, “surveillance without adequate safeguards to protect the right to privacy actually risk impacting negatively on the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Signatories of the principles include Amnesty International USA, the Arab Digital Expression Foundation, the Asociacion Paraguaya De Derecho Informatico Y Tecnologic from Paraguay, Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Big Brother Watch, Bytes for All from Pakistan, Nepal’s Center for Media Research, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Hong Kong Journalists Association and hundreds more from Kenya, Belarus, Switzerland, Austria, Indonesia, Serbia and Peru.