Industry giants stand against surveillance, but much remains to be done

By:  Mike Rispoli on: 09-Dec-2013

A strong, unified voice from the tech industry is absolutely essential to reforming the mass and intrusive surveillance programs being run by the Five Eyes, so we welcome today’s statement from AOL, Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo.

Companies have obligations to respect human rights and not be complicit in mass surveillance. Given what has been publicly revealed over the past six months, we must know for certain that the companies we entrust with our information on a daily basis are defending users and pushing back against government requests for our data. The launch of these industry principles today are a first step to restoring much of the trust in the industry that has been thrown into question since the release of the Snowden documents.

These industry principles are an important reminder that the fight against mass surveillance has only just begun. As the initial uproar at the tactics and methods being secretly undertaken by the NSA, GCHQ and other Five Eyes agencies subsides, we are left with a stark reality: gross violations of the right to privacy as States access and share bulk metadata records, outdated laws that give free reign to intelligence agencies to conduct extraterritorial spying, eroded encryption standards and spreading distrust in technologies. It is time for drastic changes to how intelligence is regulated, conducted and overseen, and we welcome these companies’ contribution to this debate.

However, there is much to be done. Given the global scale of these industries and the infrastructure and services they administer, we need reforms that protect all people and not just the US citizens who use these companies’ services. Privacy is a universal right, enshrined in international law, and must be protected, respected, and upheld as such. We need common standards that apply to all data held by US companies, not rules that afford different protections to individuals depending on their citizenship.

We also need to bring to this debate the telecommunication companies that operate the infrastructure of our communications, and those who build the technologies that allow surveillance to take place. They are equally responsible for raising the bar and pushing back against the encroachment of intelligence agencies into our private communications. Their silence is particularly noted.

Which is why Privacy International, along with EFF, Access and the support of 300 civil society organisations, launched the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance in September 2013. These principles begin from the fundamental premise that all communications should be free from the interference of governments and corporations. Surveillance must be done in accordance with human rights safeguards, and the principles apportion responsibility for protecting the privacy and security of communications to both the public and private sector.

We look forward to continuing our work with industry leaders to finally achieve the goals they have articulated, which we support. However, we hope that they will also continue to raise the bar and be more ambitious in their aims in order to respond to the serious nature of these threats to our technologies and our confidence in them. Ensuring that the digital technologies we use everyday are free from pervasive State snooping is a monumental challenge, and there is much to be done.