Two years ago today, newspapers began reporting on what are now known as the “Snowden revelations”. These documents revealed how the US National Security Agency (NSA), in concert with intelligence agencies such as the UK Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), has been indiscriminately collecting the personal data of people all over the world. The disclosures that followed those initial reports exposed NSA spying programs such as PRISM, stirring outrage worldwide about the scope of human rights violations that these programs represent.
Since then, global debate about mass surveillance has brought these issues to the forefront of the EU political agenda. Despite that fact, we have yet to see a significant counterbalance to the persistent attempts by EU member states to surveil EU citizens. If we are now living in the “post-Snowden era”, where does Europe stand when it comes to mass surveillance?
Surveillance in the EU
One of the most striking attempts to expand government surveillance at the EU level is the EU Passenger Name Record (PNR) proposal. It would enable law enforcement authorities to collect the passenger data of everyone booking a flight coming into — or leaving — the EU, and to retain that data for up to five years. This appears to be in direct contradiction of the ruling by the EU Court of Justice striking down this kind of data retention. But there are other developments in the EU that are also raising profound concerns about the rights to privacy, freedom of speech, and data protection.
In France, the so-called French Patriot Act has already passed in the first chamber of the national parliament, and is now being considered in the second. This act would give French intelligence services the power to monitor private communications with little judicial oversight, and for a very broad set of purposes. Despite evidence of widespread opposition to this dangerous bill, French lawmakers regrettably appear to be following the government’s lead in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. If adopted, the law would be the third in one year to increase the power and scope of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, without sufficiently increasing oversight of those authorities.
In Germany, activists have organised hundreds of protests to oppose the German federal government’s decision to advance legislation that would require mass-scale retention of citizens’ data. Germany has also recently been at the center of a scandal due to its alleged spying on people in allied states, such as France, for the NSA.
In the UK, the Cameron administration has repeatedly pushed to extend its surveillance powers and control over the internet, notably by adopting the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA). DRIPA was passed last year under an emergency procedure, but it is now being challenged in court by civil society groups citing its evident contradiction to the rule of law. Other organisations are campaigning to get answers about the activities that the British intelligence service — GCHQ — has allegedly been involved in.
So where are we now?
Two years after the Snowden revelations, governments have not stopped snooping on their citizens, “close allies”, or anyone else, really. Instead, since the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen last January, proposals to monitor citizens’ location and private communications have been on the rise. Sadly, it does not seem that European politicians have learned much from the failures of the US intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 era.
Fortunately, there is reason for hope. Just this week, US President Barack Obama signed into law the USA FREEDOM Act, the most significant surveillance reform in the US in a generation. Passage of this legislation prompted Edward Snowden to observe, “For the first time in recent history, we found that despite the claims of government, the public made the final decision. That is a radical change that we should seize on, we should value, and we should push further.”
We agree, and we hope that the increased awareness that EU citizens have about threats to their privacy will translate to increased mobilisation to defend it. If that turns out to be the case, it would be more than enough reason to celebrate the second anniversary of the Snowden revelations.
Contribution by Justine Chauvin.