Centre for Internet & Society

Ever since the release of the “Snowden files”, the secret documents evidencing the massive scale of surveillance undertaken by America’s National Security Agency and publically released by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, surveillance in the digital age has come to the fore of the global debate on internet governance and privacy.

The Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament in its draft report on global surveillance has issued a scathing indictment of the activities of the NSA and its counterparts in other member nations and is a welcome stance taken by an international body that is crucial to the fight against surveillance.

The "European Parliament Draft Report on the US NSA surveillance programme, surveillance bodies in various Member States and their impact on EU citizens’ fundamental rights and on transatlantic cooperation in Justice and Home Affairs" released on the 8th of January, 2014, comprehensively details and critiques the mass surveillance being undertaken by government agencies in the USA as well as within the EU, from a human rights and privacy perspective. The report examines the extent to which surveillance systems are employed by the USA and EU member-states, and declares these systems in their current avatars to be unlawful and in breach of international obligations and fundamental constitutional rights including "the freedom of expression, of the press, of thought, of conscience, of religion and of association, private life, data protection, as well as the right to an effective remedy, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial and non-discrimination".

Furthermore, the report points to the erosion of trust between the EU and the US as well as amongst member states as an outcome of such secret surveillance, and criticises and calls for a suspension of the data-sharing and transfer agreements like the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP), which share personal information about EU citizens with the United States, after examining the inadequacy of the US Safe Harbour Privacy principles in ensuring the security of such information.

After considering the secret and unregulated nature of these programmes, the report points to the need of restricting surveillance systems and criticizes the lack of adequate data protection laws and privacy laws which adhere to basic principles such as necessity, proportionality and legality.. It also questions the underlying motives of these programmes as mere security-tools and points to the possible existence of political and economic motives behind their deployment. Recognizing the pitfalls of surveillance and the terrible potential for misuse, the report "condemns in the strongest possible terms the vast, systemic, blanket collection of the personal data of innocent people, often comprising intimate personal information; emphasises that the systems of mass, indiscriminate surveillance by intelligence services constitute a serious interference with the fundamental rights of citizens; stresses that privacy is not a luxury right, but that it is the foundation stone of a free and democratic society; points out, furthermore, that mass surveillance has potentially severe effects on the freedom of the press, thought and speech, as well as a significant potential for abuse of the information gathered against political adversaries."

Amongst the recommendations in the 51-page report are calls for a prohibition of mass surveillance and bulk data collection, and an overhaul of the existing systems of data-protection across the European Union and in the US to recognize and strengthen the right to privacy of their citizens, as well as the implementation of democratic oversight mechanisms to check security and intelligence agencies. It also calls for a review of data-transfer programmes and ensuring that standards of privacy and other fundamental rights under the European constitution are met. The committee sets out a 7-point plan of action, termed the European Digital Habeus Corpus for Protecting Privacy, including adopting the Data Protection Package, suspending data transfers to the US until a more comprehensive data protection regime is through an Umbrella Agreement, enhancing fundamental freedoms of expression and speech, particularly for whistleblowers, developing a European Strategy for IT independence and developing the EU as a reference player for democratic and neutral governance of the internet.

Though this draft report has no binding legal value as yet, the scathing criticism has assisted in calling to the attention of the global community the complex issues of internet governance and privacy and surveillance, and generated debate and discourse around the need for an overhaul of the current system. The recent decision of the US government to ‘democratize’ the internet by handing control of the DNS root zone to an international body, and thereby relinquishing a large part of its means of controlling the internet, is just one example of the systemic change that this debate is generating.

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