Intelligence, security and privacy: Why we need the whistleblowers

29 May 2014, 00:00 UTC | Worldwide
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By Sherif Elsayed-Ali - Deputy Director of Global Issues

One of the most surprising things since Edward Snowden began his revelations 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. Yet we’ve seen very little about other countries’ practices. This 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, but restriction of any rights must occur within the strict rules of necessity and proportionality.

But the truth is, this reason is very often abused and used as a pretext for all sorts of human rights violations - from torture, arbitrary detention and silencing of divergent opinions. Secrecy laws, criminalization of the disclosure of information and intimidation tactics further 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 prevent him from launching a public interest whistleblowing defence under US law. If prosecuted and found guilty, he could face imprisonment of up to 10 years per charge. This would amount to persecuting a whistleblower who exposed massive human rights violations on a global scale.

The US government has not stopped at this. It has exercised its political muscle and pressured various governments into preventing Snowden from entering their countries or even crossing their airspace. As a result, he is living with temporary asylum in Russia. 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 organisations 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.

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