During a December press conference, President Obama confidently claimed that the NSA call logs strike the proper balance between privacy and civil liberties. The former Constitutional law professor explained that the purpose of his upcoming surveillance reforms was to “give the public more confidence that in fact the NSA is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.” Ironically, President Obama has given us very few assurances about the majority of the NSA’s activities.
On January 17, President Obama proposed that private companies hold telephony metadata until the NSA appears before the FISA court. Some have raised privacy concerns about his proposal. More importantly, though, President Obama said nothing about the collection of geolocation data, medical records, financial transactions, email data, and Internet browsing histories. How could such an incomplete, cosmetic reform reassure anyone?
Our lives are flooded with data. The information our electronics broadcast paints a picture of our lives in terrifying detail. President Obama is focusing the debate on who should store our data – not who should collect in in the first place. Outsourcing data storage and adding the scrutiny of a secret court does little to protect the privacy of anyone.
Privacy has never been a central focus of Human Rights activists. Quite unlike torture or incarceration, wrongful surveillance is invisible. But too much is a stake for Human Rights activists to ignore privacy. Many simply trust the discretion of President Obama. Future leaders could be worse. Imagine that our current surveillance capabilities where in the hands of President Nixon, Senator McCarthy, or J. Edgar Hoover. We would certainly watch what we typed. The danger mass surveillance poses to free speech and democracy is not exaggerated.
The future of privacy depends on proactive collaboration between governments to protect their people from inappropriate data collection. Unfortunately, the jurisprudence of International Human Rights Law on electronic privacy is vague. In July 2013, a group of International NGOs drafted the first ever International Principles on the application of Human Rights Law to communications surveillance. These principles represent a huge step forward. But they fall short of acknowledging what the future of privacy requires – a robust Human Right to the security of personal data.
President Obama’s actions demonstrate a belief that no one’s personal data is off limits. By sweeping up the communications of our allies in Europe and Latin America, the President sets the precedent that foreign surveillance is limitless. In the hands of dictators, Orwellian Surveillance restrains free speech and keeps populations in shackles. Because of the NSA’s overreach, the International Community has no moral high ground to promote privacy rights throughout the world.
In his Christmas Day message, Edward Snowden bemoaned the fact that children born today will not know what it is like to have a private conversation. Activists must not give up on a Human Right to secure personal data, or our children may forget what it is we are fighting for.