Away from exceptionalism: The need for global surveillance reform

The need for global surveillance reform

Access is celebrating International Human Rights Day by bringing you a series of blog posts covering the next big digital rights challenges. The fundamental freedoms of Expression, Privacy, Association, Conscience, along with a number of others, were codified through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed 66 years ago this week.



Human rights are universal, interrelated, interdependent, and indivisible: We must protect each one to enjoy them all. With rights under attack all around the world, Access is taking this week to recognize the Universal Declaration for setting global human rights standards.

If I were to ask most people around the world, from Russia to Brazil to Kenya, about the problem of surveillance, I’d imagine that the large majority of answers would concern the United States, and specifically the National Security Agency. Over the past eighteen months we’ve heard much to-do about the NSA and its seemingly limitless reach into the personal lives of users around the world.

Few people are not aware of the NSA, but what of the Bureau of Special Investigation in Myanmar, or Latvia’s Milit?r?s izl?košanas un droš?bas dienests? In fact, the Wikipedia page on international intelligence agencies has entries for 116 separate countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. That list includes nearly 60% of the world’s countries. There is clearly a global thirst for user information, and we need to open up a global dialogue on the need for reform.

That dialogue should start with the recognition of long-held and widely-accepted international law, like that which is embodied in the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. The Principles distill international treaties and declarations, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In terms of reform, the Principles chart a course toward rights-respecting regimes.

Official recognition is not enough, however, and must be followed by implementation. Few countries have introduced reform proposals for their own laws or regulations, though several have been quick to condemn the practices of others, particularly the United States. Not that the United States isn’t in dire need of criticism – I’ve definitely engaged in my share – but criticism loses its charm when issued by governments who are well-positioned and capable of enacting meaningful change in their own right.

In the United States, at the height of congressional disapproval in 2013, a strange trend emerged. Even those who gave the lowest ratings to Congress as a whole still were positive about their specific representative. This evinces a larger trend – we tend to be more understanding and more forgiving of those closest to us – those with a familiar face and name, as opposed to the anonymous figures that surround us. We are watching this same scenario play out on a global stage around surveillance. “My government is trying to protect me,” one may say, “but I don’t trust the rest of the world.”

This position is indefensible. Surveillance impacts everyone, especially the most vulnerable and at-risk populations. It is past time that all users demand action, domestically as well as internationally, for the universal respect of human rights. Only together can we hold all officials accountable for gross abuses that strip users of their privacy and ability to freely and openly express themselves. The next step we take on the road toward surveillance reform must be in the direction of greater human rights for all, it must be away from domestic exceptionalism, and it must be taken as a single, global community.