Freshly released GISWatch reports address surveillance

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation (Hivos) last Thursday released the annual Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) report covering the state of digital surveillance around the globe. The 2014 collection uses the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance (“the Principles”) to frame the surveillance conversation, with a number of thematic reports reports along with reports on 59 countries.

Thematic topics include the relevance of communications surveillance to cybersecurity and how liability for intermediaries, including search engines and social media, enables government surveillance. The compilation of reports aims to show the pervasiveness of digital surveillance and provide recommendations for addressing human rights violations.

Access wrote the GISWatch country report for the U.S., The Necessary and Proportionate Principles and the US government. The report addresses U.S. surveillance policy, comparing it to both the Principles and the framework the U.S. government has itself articulated to guide surveillance activities.

The U.S. report shows the discrepancy between what the government practices and what it preaches. The U.S. uses overly broad interpretations of many of the surveillance authorities, including the Patriot Act Section 215, for large-scale surveillance in violation of the rights of all users. While revelations have demonstrated that the government engages in the bulk collection of phone records travelling in the U.S. and vast amounts of data from persons tangentially connected to its actual targets, the true scope and scale of U.S. surveillance operations remains unknown.

Officials in the Obama administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have endorsed a framework derived from the Principles, including rule of law, legitimate purpose, non-arbitrariness, competent authority, oversight, and increased transparency and democratic accountability. The U.S. Framework represents a strong statement in support of human rights, though lacking some of the Principles. In addition, those that it does incorporate are, at times, defined to have a more limited scope than the Principles themselves. Most importantly, however, and as the GISWatch report demonstrates, U.S. practice is at odds with even this limited interpretation.

For example, despite the U.S. government’s commitment to provide clarity in law, the NSA has used an inexplicably broad interpretation of seemingly clear statutory language to operate a secret program that impacts millions of individuals. Specifically, while the text of Section 215 requires that records sought be “relevant to an authorized investigation,” the NSA has re-defined the word “relevant” to allow the collection of all phone records traveling through the U.S. (If the version of the USA FREEDOM Act making its way through the Senate passes into law, many of the practices allowed by this interpretation would be prohibited).

Overall, the GISWatch report shows the good and the bad of government surveillance reform efforts globally over the past year. Unfortunately, many of the other GISWatch country reports depict growing violations of human rights. For example, the Thai Netizen Network reported on the increase in surveillance after the military junta took power in May of this year. By way of contrast, other reports showed rights-respecting changes in national laws. For example, the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defense highlighted the country’s passing of Marco Civil da Internet, a framework for civil rights on the internet, which guarantees privacy and expression in communications. Access hopes that next year’s reports include many more such positive developments.

For a full list of reports, please visit the GISWatch website: