When Snowden revealed in 2013 that the UK Government intercepted nearly every bit of information and communication across its territory and had broad access to US mass surveillance data, it was a shock. What's more shocking, though, is that these practices continue to violate the basic rights of hundreds of millions of people. However, 10 privacy organizations are here to stop it, and they mean it.
The 10 organizations, among which Privacy International, Liberty, and Amnesty International, are taking this threat extremely seriously and have already brought it to the attention of the European Court of Human Rights. This is the first case before Europe’s highest international human rights court to directly challenge UK and US mass surveillance programs revealed by the Snowden disclosures. Its judgments are legally binding and the future of hundreds of millions of people is now dependent on that.
So far, national courts and oversight bodies have failed to exercise effective control over threatening mass surveillance practices that impact basic constitutional rights. In some cases, these failures are due to institutional deficiencies, while in other cases they're simply related to geographically bounded jurisdiction.
Currently, the UK Government is able to intercept in bulk any communication that travels through its territory. On top of that, it asserts an almost unfettered access to communication intercepted by the intelligence services of other states, including USA's National Security Agency (NSA).
“For years, the UK Government has been secretly intercepting enormous volumes of internet traffic flowing across its borders. At the same time, it had and still has access to similarly vast troves of information intercepted by the US Government.
We call on the European Court of Human Rights to reject this disturbing trend by finding that bulk surveillance is incompatible with the rights to privacy and freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights,” commented Caroline Wilson Palow, General Counsel at Privacy International.
Why the European Court of Human Rights is a big deal
The European Court of Human Rights interprets the European Convention of Human Rights. Its judgments aren't recommendations, they're binding on each EU member state whose laws aren't in line. In addition, they provide guidance for the 47 member states of the Council of Europe (CoE).
The Court’s judgments also resonate beyond the borders of the CoE because they are a high-instance interpretation of universal human rights, including the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Thus, they provide guidance for other international human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
So the 10 protesting organizations hope that if the Court condemns UK's mass surveillance practices and its access to US mass surveillance data, this would send a powerful message throughout the world that such programs are incompatible with fundamental human rights.
“The case before the European Court of Human Rights is a key opportunity for an international standard to be set on mass surveillance.
For too long, state agencies have been permitted to operate under a pernicious veil of secrecy, in a manner that has violated the rights to dignity and privacy of innumerable people across the world.
The current practice of mass surveillance is neither necessary, nor proportionate, and cannot be justified in open and democratic societies. This case holds the potential for the European Court to demand that state agencies behave in a more accountable manner,” pointed out Janet Love, National Director of the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa.
What happens to data intercepted by the UK
In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the UK Government intercepted a significant percentage of the communication and communication data flowing through the undersea fiber optic cables landing in the UK.
Following the interception, it redirected a copy of this traffic into buffers, which store the entire content for 3 days and communication data for 30 days.
Then, it filters this information via various criteria, which remain secret to this day. Filtered information is stored in databases, which analysts can query, data-mine or use to call up information to examine further.
Eventually, the results may be distributed to other agencies, including MI5, MI6 and the National Crime Agency.
The UK-US mass surveillance cooperation
The Snowden disclosures further revealed that the UK Government had broad access to information intercepted in bulk by the US Government.
The earliest revelations involved various mass surveillance programs conducted by the US, which the UK could fetch data from:
- UPSTREAM, which similarly taps undersea fiber optic cables landing in the US
- MYSTIC, which intercepts and stores the communications data of all mobile phone calls made to, from or within targeted countries
- DISHFIRE, which intercepts and stores the content and communications data of 194 million text messages per day
- CO-TRAVELLER, which intercepts and stores nearly 5 billion records a day relating to the location of mobile phones around the world
- MUSCULAR, which intercepted and extracted data directly as it transits to and from Google and Yahoo’s private data centers
- XKEYSCORE, which is an NSA processing and query system, fed by internet traffic intercepted from international fiber optic cables, among other sources
Until the Snowden disclosures, the general public had been mostly in the dark about UK bulk interception or access to US mass surveillance. In other words, hundreds of millions of people had been unaware that their fundamental human rights to privacy and freedom of expression had been trampled. And 99% of them had surely never done anything worth the attention of the security agencies...
“Through bulk surveillance programs, the US and UK governments intercept the private communications and data of millions of people around the world. Not only is bulk surveillance unlawful, but it has a deeply chilling and corrosive effect on political discourse and our personal communications,” said Ashley Gorski, Staff Attorney at the ACLU National Security Project.
For far too long, mass surveillance has been shrouded in secrecy. Hopefully, this case will bring these wrongful practices to light and will help people retain their fundamental human rights and dignity.
Protect your data and communication from tapping
In the meantime, your privacy is left to chance. This is the scary reality.
However, you aren't defenseless. Your shield is called encryption, and it offers double protection with disk encryption and end-to-end encryption. But wield it with care because there's no space for human error.
First, think about your phone. Today, smartphones are like a full map of people's lives. They can give away anything from contacts, through photos and account information, to real-time communication over any channel. You phone is what you must protect first.
You could try to encrypt your smartphone's local storage and install communication apps with end-to-end encryption features. For example, you could rely on our Android apps Secure Email, Secure Chat and Secure Voice to completely shield your communication through end-to-end encryption.
However, you'll still have an ordinary device with all its security cracks and possible hidden data leaks and back doors.
Therefore, if you really need to guard your privacy and data the best way you can, you need a special solution. This is namely our main focus. Our Secure Phone and Secure BlackBerry product lines are specially developed to provide the full scope of protection against any existing threat to mobile privacy and security.
Whatever you do, take our advice. Don't leave your privacy to chance because it's close to none!