Privacy, Schmivacy: UN Finds Appalling Lack of Evidence in Privacy-Violating Spying Expeditions

The world moves at light speed. Communication blasts through satellites and wires into our computers and phones. But the technology that has made it easier for millions to connect has also made those communications easier for governments to intercept. 

The UN has acknowledged the need for governments to have some capability in accessing the troves of data its citizens produce, but in a new report condemns the current privacy violations many European, but especially the US, governments have perpetrated:

International human rights law requires States to provide an articulable and evidence-based for any interference with the right to privacy, whether on an individual or mass scale. It is a central axiom of proportionality that the greater the interference with protected human rights, the more compelling the justification must be if it is to meet the requirements of the Covenant. The hard truth is that the use of mass surveillance technology effectively does away with the right to privacy of communications on the Internet altogether. By permitting bulk access to all digital communications traffic, this technology eradicates the possibility of any individualized proportionality analysis. It permits intrusion on private communications without independent (or any) prior authorization based on suspicion directed at a particular individual or organization. Ex ante scrutiny is therefore possible only at the highest level of generality.

Privacy rights expert and journalist Glenn Greenwald expounds on this report in The Intercept, saying that states like the US have a vested interested in counterterrorism, but need to justify intrusions with actual hard evidence:

But the report was adamant that no such justifications have ever been demonstrated by any member state using mass surveillance: “The States engaging in mass surveillance have so far failed to provide a detailed and evidence-based public justification for its necessity, and almost no States have enacted explicit domestic legislation to authorize its use.”

Greenwald then describes how this jibes with just about every other investigation into domestic spy campaigns. Virtually non-existent are the rationales for the intrusions: 

The rejection of the “terrorism” justification for mass surveillance as devoid of evidence echoes virtually every other formal investigation into these programs. A federal judge last December found that the U.S. Government was unable to “cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.” Later that month, President Obama’s own Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies concluded that mass surveillance “was not essential to preventing attacks” and information used to detect plots “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”

"National security!" "Terrorism!" – These are the bogus strawmen the US government wheels out every time it invades our privacy on the flimsiest of pretexts. And while there is little hope for the policies being changed by our Tweedledee and Tweedledum political parties, reaffirmation of our basic right to privacy begins the conversation. Let's hope it leads somewhere.

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