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Communications Surveillance

Interception and monitoring of individuals' communications is becoming more widespread, more indiscriminate and more invasive, just as our reliance on electronic communications increases.

Nearly all major international agreements on human rights protect the right of individuals to be free from unwarranted surveillance. This guarantee has trickled down into national constitutional or legal provisions protecting the privacy of communications.

In most democratic countries, intercepts of oral, telephone and digital communications are initiated by law enforcement or intelligence agencies only after approval by a judge, and only during the investigation of serious crimes.
Yet government agencies continue to lobby for increased surveillance capabilities, particularly as technologies change. Communications surveillance has expanded to Internet and digital communications. In many countries, law enforcement agencies have required internet providers and telecommunications companies to monitor users’ traffic. Many of these activities are carried out under dubious legal basis and remain unknown to the public.

We have conducted investigations to uncover communications surveillance schemes and the technologies that enable communications surveillance. We also work with technology providers to promote the use of secure communications technologies, and have worked with human rights groups to train them in securing their communications. We continue to monitor the use of communications surveillance, advocate for transparency and independent authorization and oversight, and promote other safeguards against abuse.

Communications Surveillance

Carly Nyst's picture

As privacy and free expression advocates hail the demise of the Data Retention Directive at the hands of the European Court of Justice, one large question is looming in the midst of celebration.

Now what? 

More specifically, what will be its impact of the national laws of the European Union countries? What steps should EU governments be taking to ensure the Court’s decision is given effect? What are the implications for communications service providers who have been collecting and storing data in accordance with the Directive for many years? How can we ensure that this harmful practice is ceased immediately?

Press release

The ruling today from the European Court of Justice, invalidating the European Union’s 2006 Data Retention Directive policy, was strong and unequivocal: the right to privacy provides a fundamental barrier between the individual and powerful institutions, and laws allowing for indiscriminate, blanket retention on this scale are completely unacceptable.

As the Court states, it is not, and never was, proportionate to spy on the entire population of Europe. The types of data retained under this hastily-enacted Directive are incredibly revealing about our lives, including our daily activities and whom we have relationships with. It is right and overdue that this terrible directive was struck down.

Kenneth Page's picture

Global problems require global solutions. One of the significant emerging threats to human rights and democracy today is the incredible and mostly unaccountable spread of surveillance technologies.

Press release

World leaders must commit to keeping invasive surveillance systems and technologies out of the hands of dictators and oppressive regimes, said a new global coalition of human rights organizations as it launched today in Brussels.

The Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports (CAUSE) – which includes Amnesty International, Digitale Gesellschaft, FIDH, Human Rights Watch, the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, Privacy International, and Reporters without Borders – aims to hold governments and private companies accountable for abuses linked to the US$5 billion and growing international trade in communication surveillance technologies. Governments are increasingly using spying software, equipment, and related tools to violate the right to privacy and a host of other human rights.


Our special report shining a light on the secretive Five Eyes alliance, where we lay out how the laws around which the Five Eyes are constructed violate human rights law, and argue the Five Eyes States owe a general duty not to interfere with communications that pass through their territorial borders.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - 18:30
Committee Room 6, House of Commons. Enter through the St Stephen's Entrance to the Houses of Parliament

The Snowden revelations have reverberated throughout the world, sparking an international debate on state power and what privacy and freedom of expression means in the digital age.

The impact of the Snowden disclosures is global. While we view the debate from our domestic perspective, the impact has been significant for those who defend human rights and fight surveillance in emerging democracies.

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Mike Rispoli
+44 (0) 20 3422 4321

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Carly Nyst's picture

In response to a consultation being undertaken by the UN in accordance with December’s General Assembly resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age, Privacy International today called on the United Nations to recognise that mass surveillance is incompatible with human rights.

The submission to the Office of the High Commissioner to Human Rights confronts some of the biggest challenges to the right to privacy in the digital age, debunks some of the justifications put forth by the Five Eyes governments in response to the Snowden revelations, and argues that States owe human rights obligations to all individuals subject to their jurisdiction.

Kenneth Page's picture

Surveillance companies selling mass and intrusive spy technologies to human rights-abusing governments often are benefitting from the financial and institutional support from their home government, revealing a more closely-linked relationship between the sector and the State than previously believed.

Recent revelations concerning the funding of Hacking Team's surveillance technology with public money highlights the role of states in funding the development of surveillance technologies and companies. This discovery was preceded by the discovery that the South African Government funded the development of the mass surveillance system Zebra, made by VASTech. And with State supporting of national business abroad, including the UK promoting cyber-security exports, we are seeing a variety of ways the state is enabling the commercial surveillance market.

Edin Omanovic's picture

The market for surveillance technologies has expanded so much in recent years that oversight has been totally unable to keep up, which has led to devastating consequences in the lives of human rights defenders in repressive regimes around the world.

According to a new study released today by Privacy International, the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, and Digitale Gesellschaft, international efforts to oversee the trade in surveillance technologies are out-dated and urgently need to be updated in order to keep up in the digital age. Ensuring that export regulations are fit for purpose is a vital part of an overall strategy to ensure the surveillance industry does not continue to trample upon human rights and facilitate internal repression.

Dr Richard Tynan's picture

For some time, many in the privacy and security community hoped for a completely open-source mobile phone, one that would allow for code to be examined and strengthened to prevent malicious attacks to a user's privacy.

So when Canonical, the company that primarily funds Ubuntu GNU/Linux, announced it was entering the mobile phone market, we were among the many who hailed this development. Given the company's track record, it was believed that the open-source philosophy of Ubuntu would carry through to their mobile phone version. In light of what we now know about the fallibility of mobile phones, which can enable highly invasive and mass surveillance, the need for this kind of phone has only increased recently.


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