Human rights groups cannot do their jobs in a surveillance state

By Tanya O’Carroll, Technology and Human Rights Officer for Amnesty International. Follow Tanya on Twitter @TanyaOCarroll

Powerful surveillance systems are strangling freedom of expression and interfering with the legitimate work of activists and non-governmental organizations.

Since former NSA analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden released one of the biggest intelligence leaks in history two years ago, almost a week doesn’t go past without some new information on electronic surveillance making headlines. And yet, the more that is revealed, the more we become aware just how much governments are keeping us in the dark.

The first week of July has been particularly notable. Last Wednesday, we were informed by the UK intelligence tribunal that Amnesty International’s private communications were intercepted and accessed by the UK’s intelligence agencies. The notice, which arrived to us in the form of a rather surreal email, was the outcome of a case brought by Amnesty and nine other organizations against the UK government. It concluded more than 18 months of litigation with hearings held either in secret or on the basis that the government could ‘neither confirm nor deny’ any facts. It was a backhanded victory to finally confirm what we suspected: that Amnesty’s communications were spied on by UK intelligence agencies.

Selling software to repressive governments

Just days later, a separate revelation would seem to confirm what investigations by security researchers and human rights groups have long asserted, that Hacking Team, a private Italian company that builds and markets powerful surveillance technologies to governments, has been selling its software to countries with a history of repression of peaceful activists and human rights defenders. It is very likely that these governments would have used Hacking Team’s surveillance tools for these purposes.

The information was leaked after Hacking Team was itself the target of a hack, leading to a data dump online of more than 400GB of internal documents. If proved authentic, the documents are damning for Hacking Team, which has repeatedly denied or avoided allegations that it sold intrusive spying systems to governments including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. According to the hacked files, all three countries appear as Hacking Team customers alongside a list of other countries where there are serious concerns about human rights violations against activists.

In both cases, far more questions remain than have been answered. For example, we still know nothing about the why, when, how and which of Amnesty’s communications were accessed by UK intelligence agencies. However, what this week’s revelations show beyond doubt is that existing laws and regulations are failing.

Strangling freedom of expression

Whether we’re talking about mass surveillance programmes that indiscriminately sweep up everyone’s communications, including the sensitive and confidential communications of NGOs, or whether we’re talking about the rapidly growing market for cheap and highly intrusive surveillance equipment available to any government which can afford the price tag, it is clear that governments across the world are increasingly using powerful surveillance systems in ways that strangle freedom of expression and interfere with the legitimate work of activists and non-governmental organizations.

This is a trend as worrying in the UK as it is in Saudi Arabia. When human rights organizations like Amnesty International can no longer guarantee that our communications with sources and victims will not be accessed without our knowledge by UK spy agencies, it erodes the trust placed in us and affects our ability to conduct sensitive investigations.

Equally, when governments such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Ethiopia routinely target activists and infect their computers and phones with malicious spyware, it leads to the silencing of civil society. We’ve witnessed this “chilling effect” directly in the past few years as trusted contacts in some countries can no longer exchange digital communications with Amnesty without fearing repercussions because their communications are compromised.

World of ubiquitous surveillance

We are left wondering how those who stand up to government oppression, corruption and negligence – whether they are human rights defenders, investigative journalists or environmental activists – will continue to operate in a world of ubiquitous surveillance.

That’s why Amnesty International is calling for governments to end indiscriminate mass surveillance and introduce proper oversights to ensure that surveillance only takes place when it is legitimate, targeted and based on reasonable suspicion.

We also believe the trade in surveillance technology needs much greater oversight and that governments should be responsible for assessing and preventing the export of surveillance technologies where they are likely to be used for human rights violations.

The alternative is daunting: the silencing of dissent and ever more unaccountable governments.

Learn more about our work on Mass Surveillance.