NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden appeared via video conference today at the New York preview of a draft treaty bearing his name, one which organizers hope will spur UN member states to offer protections to those who leak evidence of mass surveillance, and codify an international regime for preventing the very spying that was exposed by Snowden two years ago.
"We've already changed culture, we can discuss things that five years back if you had brought them up in a serious conversation, would have gotten you labeled as a conspiracy theorist," said Snowden, speaking from Russia, where he received asylum after the US government charged him with espionage in 2013. "We need to think about what the actual proposals that we are going to put forth are going to be."
The International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance, and Protection of Whistleblowers — "The Snowden Treaty", for short — would require signatories to take measures to prevent dragnet intelligence, offer protection to whistleblowers, and provide periodic updates to the United Nations on international compliance with the treaty's obligations.
David Miranda, a privacy activist and coordinator of a campaign to grant Snowden asylum in Brazil, worked with lawyers in that country to draft the text. Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first published many of Snowden's leaked materials. In an interview with VICE News earlier this week, Miranda stressed that the treaty is very much a first stab at raising questions of privacy, particularly for those connected to the internet, with a globally and legally-binding text.
"The goal is to start a debate that the entire world has been craving," said Miranda. "Everything has changed since the Snowden revelations."
In August 2013, Miranda was held by authorities for more than eight hours at London's Heathrow Airport, under the UK Terrorism Act. Materials seized from him have yet to be returned. Miranda said the incident, which came just months after Snowden's initial leaks, encouraged him to work on the treaty. Following the NSA revelations, Brazil, along with other countries like Germany, were heavily critical of the agency's mass surveillance. But he added that the treaty, while clearly framed in light of US spying, is aimed at every government, including his own.
Miranda said that he'd spoken with representatives from several countries, and indicated they might go public with their support within weeks, although he did not name those countries. He said that the treaty would become public after additional consultations with diplomats and NGOs.
Greenwald, speaking via video conference from Brazil, pointed to recent pushback from corporations, many of which collaborated with the US government on its spying programs. He said public concern was forcing them to incorporate technologies like encryption to protect consumer's data — developments that have riled intelligence officials.
"Obviously the treaty has its genesis in the work that we've done with the Snowden documents and activists have done around the surveillance revelations," Greenwald said. "But it goes way, way beyond the case of Edward Snowden."
Snowden, who remains exiled in Russia, lamented that despite greater awareness of privacy issues, governments continue to expand surveillance schemes, often in the name of fighting terrorism.
"Increasingly we're seeing that even if these programs are instituted with the best of intentions, to keep citizens safe, to assist in war zone operations in the intervention of terrorism… inevitably they come back to impact us here at home," he said.
The treaty draft, which currently lacks a UN member country sponsor, comes after several resolutions were passed at the General Assembly and one at the Human Rights Council in Geneva expressing concern over the invasion of privacy by governments. The UN's Special Rapporteur on Privacy, has similarly pleaded for a "Geneva Convention for the Internet."
According to privacy advocates, the NSA's vast and intrusive surveillance network that Snowden helped to expose in 2013 represents a violation of human rights that is already enshrined in international law. But they say that many governments fail to perceive the vacuuming of metadata and web traffic as legal violations, and even if they do, they often see electronic surveillance as an arms race, in which they can't afford to fall behind.
"People are connected 24 hours a day, this is not just an issue for someone in the US that has more access to technology," said Miranda.
Danny O'Brien, international director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which reviewed an early draft of the treaty, said that the whistleblower protections enshrined in the text wouldn't be as necessary if transparency on collection methods was a respected policy among world governments — but it is not.
Watchdogs have pointed to the recent trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA operative who was accused of leaking classified material to a New York Times reporter, but convicted wholly on circumstantial evidence: metadata indicating he had merely communicated with the reporter, James Risen, by email and phone. The content of their communications was never unveiled. Though Sterling was accused of giving Risen information concerning a classified operation to disrupt Iran's nuclear program, groups like Reporters Without Borders say his fate sends a clear warning to any would-be whistleblower, including those aiming to publicize illegal surveillance, who could be implicated simply by emailing a reporter.
O'Brien said that the treaty, which cites the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Convention, among other international legal documents, will be seen mostly as a response to the enormity of government's capacity to suck up data on its own citizens, and those in other countries, by electronic means.
"There used to be a supposedly small part of the operations of government which was lawless — it was unconstitutional and that was seen as acceptable because it was spy vs. spy, targeted at an agent of a foreign power," O'Brien said. "Somehow in the past decade, a switch was flipped, and rather than being a few targeted individuals, this intelligence collection became an excuse to surveille everyone who uses the internet. That's when it becomes a human rights issue."
If countries agree that the right to privacy in the internet age is territory for the treaty system, questions of enforcement will likely be at the forefront. Unlike bans on landmines, or nuclear tests, surveillance remains largely out of the public eye. And many countries, including the United States, Russia, and China, are not signatories to several major global treaties and are not members of the International Criminal Court.
"I don't have high expectations that countries are going to get this document and they are just going to sign this and accept it," cautioned Miranda. "But we have to have an understanding, what does mass surveillance mean, what does privacy mean?"
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