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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

Alexandrine Pirlot's picture

As anticipated, the Snowden revelations – first referred to in the opening session as the “elephant in the room” – soon became the central focus of many of the 150 workshops that took place during the 8th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Bali, and dominated the bilateral meetings that took place between governments, the private sector, the tech community, and civil society.

The various stakeholders arrived at the IGF ready to pursue their own agendas. The U.S. came to try and restore its image as a concerned protector of human rights of Internet users; China, to seize the opportunity to portray itself as a support of citizen’s rights in face of mass foreign surveillance programmes of Western democracies; and Brazil used the IGF to reaffirm its leadership for a multi-stakeholder approach which would respect human rights and challenge unethical illegal mass surveillance.

Opinion piece
Anna Crowe's picture

The following is an excerpt from a guest article which appeared on openDemocracy, written by Privacy International's Research Officer, Anna Crowe:

Humanitarian actors often forsake the right to privacy in favour of promoting programmes utilising phones to deliver services, either through a lack of understanding or wilful ignorance as to the risks involved.

It is clear that the massive uptake of mobile phones in developing countries has played a crucial role in the success of many development interventions over the past decade. As well as aiding communication, mobiles have given people access to a range of services and information and revolutionised information collection and recording in humanitarian disasters.

Dr Gus Hosein's picture

Just search for the term "surveillance state" and you’ll pull up various uses of the term or news articles citing the phrase.

In some respects, this newfound concern can’t be a surprise; given vast new amounts of information in the public sphere since the Edward Snowden leaks began in June. However, it is critical to nail down the exact meaning of the term, so as the public and governments have the debate over State spying, we can actually know what we're talking about. Most importantly, this will help us push back against it.

Carly Nyst's picture

For the first time since the Snowden revelations exposed the vast reach and scope of Britain's surveillance and intelligence activities, Parliament will openly debate the need for greater oversight of the intelligence and security services.

In the media
Publication date: 
Stephen Beard
Original story link: 

Gus Hosein of the Privacy International campaign group says the revelations about Merkel’s mobile have made tougher restrictions on transatlantic data flows more likely. “Now that the heads of state from across Europe are targets for the National Security Agency, they’re going to start taking this matter a hell of a lot more seriously,” Hosein says.  

Matthew Rice's picture

When a product line becomes engulfed in controversy, the PR team's first move is to distance the corporation from the damage. The surveillance market is not immune to this approach, so when companies products are found to be in use by repressive regimes, the decision many boards make is simply to sell off that technology. This increasingly repetitive narrative is failing to solve any of the problems inherent with the sale of surveillance technology and in fact, is creating more.

Anna Crowe's picture

Today’s much-anticipated launch of the 2013 Aid Transparency Index, an industry standard for assessing transparency among major aid donors, shows that, despite progress, many aid agencies continue to maintain secrecy around what they are funding.

Further, for those agencies that achieved high rankings in the index, transparency alone does not prevent one of our larger concerns: aid which facilitates impermissible surveillance of communities and individuals in the developing world. Biometric databases, electronic voting registration systems, criminal databases and border surveillance initiatives are being backed by Western donors keen to see the adoption abroad of technologies that raise considerable controversy at home.

Caroline Wilson Palow's picture

*Update: The European Parliament has voted to recommend suspension of its Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP) agreement with the US. The vote in favour of suspension only highlights how the NSA’s reported activities have undermined the agreement. Negotiations should immediately commence to strengthen the privacy and redress provisions, to ensure that governments cannot spy on individuals and obtain their data in violation of the agreement. The recommended suspension of the agreement, however, does not change our position that Europeans are entitled to seek redress regarding the NSA’s breach since the alleged violations occurred while the agreement was still clearly in effect.

Amongst the recent blockbuster revelations of global government surveillance and espionage has emerged a quieter, less ostentatious story surrounding allegations that the NSA is gaining unauthorized access to the international financial messaging system, SWIFT.

Alinda Vermeer's picture

In our ongoing campaign to prevent the sale of surveillance technologies to repressive regimes, Privacy International today has filed a complaint with the South African body responsible for arms controls, asking for an investigation into South Africa-based surveillance company VASTech for the potential illegal export its technology to Libya.

In this case, Western-made surveillance technology was found by the Wall Street Journal when journalists entered the communications monitoring centre of the Gaddafi regime in August 2011. They found English-language training manuals carrying the logo of a French company called Amesys, and reviewed emails that indicated that VASTech provided Libya with tools to tap and log all international phone calls going in and out of the country.

Carly Nyst's picture

At the first major discussions on internet governance since the Snowden leaks began in June 2013, Sweden’s Foreign Minister has called for the establishment of principles to define the application of existing human rights obligations to the digital realm.

Noting that the Snowden revelations have given birth to “a new debate about surveillance and privacy”, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt acknowledged that internet governance is being challenged, as some States operate vast surveillance systems without any laws of oversight whatsoever, and others are preparing for offensive operations on the net. He called for a global dialogue on the global norms of behavior on the net, and proposed seven principles that should be observed by States with regard to online surveillance.


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