Rights Groups Call for More Change Two Years After Snowden Revelations Began

It’s been two years now since the first stories about NSA surveillance capabilities began to appear, and the environment has shifted dramatically in that time. Awareness of and resistance to mass surveillance has increased greatly, but the changes to policy and laws that many observers had hoped for haven’t necessarily emerged. A new report from Privacy International and Amnesty International says little has changed and there’s much more work to be done to reform the way intelligence agencies operate.

The new report goes through the litany of revelations from the Edward Snowden documents, some of which now seem mundane in light of what’s come after. The first story to come out was about the existence of secret orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that authorized the FBI, on behalf of the NSA, to collect phone records on millions of accounts every day. That program, which was authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, has been a central point of contention for privacy advocates. Last month, a federal appeals court ruled that the collection of those metadata records was not in fact authorized by Section 215 and was illegal.

That ruling was followed by the expiration of Section 215 on June 1, an event that was applauded by privacy advocates.

“I think what this shows is that there was not even close to a consensus among Americans that the government should have been doing bulk domestic collection,” said Jennifer Granick, Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. 

The surveillance report from Privacy International and Amnesty International says that despite the changes that have come, the overall surveillance landscape is virtually the same as it was before the Snowden revelations began.

“Two years on from Edward Snowden’s revelations, the vast mass surveillance apparatus operated by the US and UK intelligence agencies remains intact, and there are no indications on the horizon that they intend to halt the deployment – and indeed the expansion – of their capabilities,” the report says.

“Despite the information that has been revealed to the public, UK and US mass surveillance programmes remain shrouded in secrecy. Nothing illustrates this better than the UK government’s policy of ‘neither confirm nor deny’ (NCND). The NCND policy has left those who brought legal challenges against UK mass surveillance programmes with no choice but to make legal arguments about hypothetical scenarios – this has meant that actual programmes such as TEMPORA, the existence of which is clear based on the documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, are shielded from any kind of meaningful scrutiny.”

TEMPORA is one of the programs under which the British GCHQ has tapped undersea cables that carry data traffic.

To address the remaining issues, the report suggests several things that lawmakers, corporations, and the international community can do. Specifically, the report says that national laws should be made to ensure they are in line with international human rights conventions, and that whistleblowers such as Snowden should be afforded full legal protection. The report also says that governments shouldn’t make encryption or its use illegal. This last point is one that’s come to the fore recently as United States politicians have begun discussing potential backdoors in encryption technologies for law enforcement access.

The organizations also call on telecoms and ISPs not to acquiesce to government requests for data or access without reason.

“Companies that own and/or operate telecommunications or internet infrastructure, including undersea telecommunications cables, and internet companies, must ensure that access to data is permitted only when it conforms to international law and standards on human rights, including by taking legal action to challenge government requests that seek bulk/wholesale access to communications traffic,” the report says.


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