Intelligence, security and privacy – why we need the whistleblowers

By Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Deputy Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International

The questions came fast and sharp as the 2014 Stockholm Internet Forum (#SIF14) kicked off yesterday.

Given that the theme of this year’s conference is “Internet — privacy, transparency, surveillance and control”, why was Edward Snowden not invited? The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ response, that there were limited places for participants and that they had to ensure gender diversity, did not cut the mustard with participants, judging by comments on Twitter and in the hallways.

One of the most surprising things since Edward Snowden started his revelations nearly a year ago is that there haven’t been significant disclosures about surveillance practices elsewhere in the world. The USA’s NSA, Britain’s GCHQ and the rest of the “Five Eyes Alliance” spy agencies cannot be the only ones engaging in mass surveillance, but we’ve seen very little about other countries’ practices. This only highlights the incredible risk involved in exposing the unlawful practices of security agencies, even in countries that consider themselves democratic.

‘National security’ is one of the main reasons governments cite when they restrict human rights – online or elsewhere. It can be a legitimate reason to restrict certain rights, including privacy, but this must be within the strict rules of necessity and proportionality. But in reality, national security is very often abused and used as a pretext for all sorts of human rights violations, from torture, to arbitrary detention and silencing of divergent opinions. When it comes to the behaviour of spy agencies, ‘national security’ is trotted out by default. Secrecy laws, criminalization of the disclosure of information and intimidation are used to quash attempts to expose the excesses of security agencies. And of course, national security is used to justify indiscriminate mass surveillance by spy agencies across the world.

Edward Snowden exposed a programme of unlawful surveillance that violates the privacy of millions of people worldwide. The US government charged him under the Espionage Act, which would preclude him from launching a public interest whistle-blowing defence under US law. If prosecuted and found guilty, he could face imprisonment of up to 10 years per charge. This would amount to persecution of a whistleblower who exposed massive human rights violations on a global scale.

But, the US government has not stopped at this. For a year, it has exercised its political muscle to pressure various governments to prevent Snowden from entering their countries or even crossing their airspace. As a result, he is living with temporary asylum in Russia and several European governments have blocked attempts, including by parliamentarians, to invite him to speak in their countries.

Detractors who criticize his disclosures ignore the extreme secrecy under which surveillance programmes have been running for years. Without whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, the excesses of security agencies, and particularly spy agencies, will remain hidden. Government officials who authorize them will remain shielded from accountability.

This is why the protection of whistleblowers is critical to the rule of law and the protection of human rights. Those who uncover corruption and human rights violations by government agencies must be able to reveal the truth to the public without fear of retribution and criminal sanctions. This does not negate legitimate public security concerns. The Tshwane Principles strike a balance between legitimate government actions, human rights and whistle-blowing. Drafted by 22 national and global organizations in consultation with 500 experts from 70 countries, they can serve as a guiding set of principles for governments.

The oft-repeated mantra is that we should have no expectation of privacy on the internet. Governments who want to spy on their people and companies that profit from our data want us to believe this, and accept it.

But we should not. Privacy is one of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is legally enforceable in most of the world. We must hold governments to account when they violate our privacy and to do this we need the whistleblowers.