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Surveillance of political movements

Privacy is not a privilege that belongs only to Parliamentarians. The surveillance of political movements, and of individuals' political preferences also threatens political integrity. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NAACP membership lists must be kept secret from the antagonistic government of the State of Alabama, the monitoring of political movements may weaken those movements. Often that is the intention of the surveillance.

  • Colombia's intelligence agency, the Department of Administrative Security, over a number of years spied upon the current President's political opponents, critics, human rights workers, journalists, and members of the Supreme Court. One human rights lawyer recounted that in their attempts to find evidence that he was receiving money from the guerillas, the DAS compiled a file on him including his financial information, but also consisting of photos of his children, and transcripts of phone and e-mail conversations.1
  • Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s television channel secretly filmed a judge who had ruled against him in a bribery case.  In October 2009, the TV channel aired footage of hidden cameras that followed the judge around, passing commentary on his actions and his choice of socks.  This prompted the National Association of Magistrates to file a complaint to the privacy commissioner of Italy, stating that this what an unprecedented attack on a judge, "denigrating a person and delegitimising an essential and delicate function".2
  • The membership list of the far-right British National Party was leaked publicly. The list included the names of over 10,000 members, including members of mainstream political parties,3 police officers, soldiers, civil servants, teachers, and church ministers. The employment situations of these individuals were placed at risk by the disclosure of the list.
  • Russia maintains a court-designated list of terrorist organizations.4 Legal experts have raised concerns regarding the vague definitions of 'terrorism' and 'extremism' in the law, which permit selective and unpredictable measures against political or media activity critical of the authorities.5 Human rights campaigners have claimed that the law was being used to spy on human rights groups.
  • Reports continue to emerge about the U.S. Government's surveillance practices targeted at political groups who posed no threat to homeland security, including pro- and anti-abortion groups,6 peace activists,7 Muslim organisations,8 and even communities.9 The U.S. has also chilled charitable giving in the Muslim community under its initiatives to clamp down on terrorist financing.10
  • There have been a number of initiatives by the police in the UK to monitor protestors, including the use of lists, spotter cards of individuals who may "instigate offences or disorder", and intelligence databases.11 The police already videotape protests and take photos of participants; with facial recognition technology this practice would be akin to demanding the ID cards of all participants.

Unlike initiatives to arrest individuals, or to censor their speech, a greater problem posed by covert surveillance is that sometimes the groups and individuals themselves do not even know they are subjected to surveillance. This is perhaps the most chilling effect on political organising of them all: you never know you are under surveillance but do not know that you aren't. When the U.S. Congress authorised the National Security Agency's vast telecommunications spying programme, human rights groups and journalists immediately filed suit arguing that the law was unconstitutional as it was likely that their international communications in the conduct of their work would be monitored. This, they said, interfered with their right to free speech and right to be free of unwarranted surveillance. The court ruled in August 2009 that the plaintiffs lacked standing as they could only demonstrate an abstract fear that their communications will be monitored, and that the injury is speculative, particularly as the surveillance would be done surreptitiously. In essence: you have no standing if you can't show you are under secret surveillance, and if you can't show that you've been harmed by secret surveillance, then you have no case.


  • 1. 'A Scandal Over Spying Intensifies in Colombia', Simon Romero, New York Times, September 17, 2009.
  • 2. 'Fury as Berlusconi judge filmed', BBC, October 19, 2009.
  • 3. 'Former Labour, Tory and Lib Dem members on BNP list', James Meikle and Helen Carter, Guardian, November 21, 2008.
  • 4. 'Federal Law no. 35-FZ on Counteraction of Terrorism 2006.
  • 5. Committee of Experts on Terrorism of the Council of Europe, National Legislation of the Russian Federation:  Federal Law NO. 35-FZ of 6 March 2006 on Counteraction Against Terrorism, adopted by the State Duma on 26 February 2006 Endorsed by the Federation Council on 1 March 2006.
  • 6. 'Intelligence Improperly Collected on U.S. Citizens', Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, New York Times, December 16, 2009.'Intelligence Improperly Collected on U.S. Citizens', Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, New York Times, December 16, 2009.
  • 7. ACLU uncovers FBI Surveillance of Main Peace Activists, ACLU, October 25, 2006.
  • 8. 'Muslims Say F.B.I. Tactics Sow Anger and Fear', Paul Vitello and Kirk Semple, New York Times, December 18, 2009.
  • 9. 'Loosening of F.B.I. Rules Stirs Privacy Concerns', Charlie Savage, New York Times, October 29, 2009.
  • 10. ‘Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity:  Chilling Muslim Charitable Giving in the “War on Terrorism Financing”, American Civil Liberties Union, June 2009.
  • 11.  'Police forces challenged over files held on law-abiding protesters', Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, October 26, 2009.