How times change… Just a year or two ago, we were being told that the fight against terrorism justified mass data surveillance.
Now, in the post-Snowden/NSA-mass-snooping era, a top barrister working for the UN General Assembly has blown this “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” argument out of the water with a critical new report: mass surveillance of the internet, Ben Emmerson QC says, is: “indiscriminately corrosive to online privacy,” and poses “a direct and ongoing challenge to an established norm of international law.”
Governments and spy agencies certainly aren’t alone in their cavalier attitude to personal privacy. Though: Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the German digital media group, Alex Springer, recently revealed in a highly critical open letter to Google, that internet companies have taken a relaxed (some might say reckless) approach to their users’ private data as well.
Döpfner mentions hearing Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt declare at a conference back in 2009: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” And in response to a query about Facebook’s policy on storing and protecting people’s data, Mark Zuckerberg replied: “I don’t understand your question. If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.”
Citing Article 17 of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that: “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home and correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation,” Emmerson warns that mass data interception technology as devised by the NSA and GCHQ “effectively does away with the right to privacy of communications on the internet altogether.”
Simply because something is technically feasible, and may sometimes deliver useful intelligence, Emmerson said, does not necessarily make it either reasonable or lawful. Demolishing the oft-repeated argument that any online content should be considered in the public domain, Emmerson writes: “The internet is not a purely public space. It is composed of many layers of private as well as social and public realms.”
His report calls for urgent revisions of national laws regulating surveillance to ensure they are consistent with international human rights laws and contain commensurate safeguards.
The days of unfettered mass surveillance may be numbered.