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Government intelligence programs threaten fundamental human rights, a top rights body said Monday. (Photo: Mike Mozart/flickr/cc)

Mass Surveillance Endangers 'Fundamental Human Rights': Report

European human rights body finds spying programs endanger lives, consume valuable anti-terrorist resources

Nadia Prupis

Mass surveillance programs threaten fundamental human rights and may do more harm than good in the anti-terrorism fight, the top human rights organization in Europe said in a report published Monday.

"Our freedom is built on what others do not know of our existences." Thus begins the report (pdf) by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), with a quote from Russian writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. The report found that the invasive and widespread government intelligence programs revealed in 2013 by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden "endanger fundamental human rights" as guaranteed by the European convention on human rights, including privacy, freedom of expression, fair trial, and freedom of religion.

"These rights are cornerstones of democracy," PACE said. "Their infringement without adequate judicial control jeopardizes the rule of law."

Moreover, those programs consume valuable resources, while providing little in the way of security. PACE continues:

Mass surveillance does not appear to have contributed to the prevention of terrorist attacks, contrary to earlier assertions made by senior intelligence officials. Instead, resources that might prevent attacks are diverted to mass surveillance, leaving potentially dangerous persons free to act.

Intelligence agencies are also actively threatening internet security by systematically seeking out, using, or even creating "back doors" and other weaknesses online that could be exploited by cyber-criminals or repressive governments, the report states, adding:

"The consequences of mass surveillance tools such as those developed by the US and allied services falling into the hands of authoritarian regimes would be catastrophic."

The assembly's legal committee called for:

  • The collection of personal data without consent only following "a court order granted on the basis of reasonable suspicion";
  • "Credible, effective protection" for whistle-blowers exposing unlawful surveillance;
  • Better judicial and parliamentary control of intelligence services;
  • An "intelligence codex" defining mutual obligations that secret services could opt into;
  • An inquiry into member states’ use of mass surveillance using powers under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Another concern named in the report is the use of mass surveillance to justify the existence of "secret laws, secret courts and secret interpretations of such laws."

In April 2014, Snowden spoke to the assembly through a video link from Moscow, Russia, where he has been granted asylum since 2012. During that conference, he revealed to assembly members that the NSA had targeted non-governmental organizations and other civil groups for its surveillance sweeps, both inside and outside of the U.S..

"Before the ever-growing 'surveillance-industrial complex' spins completely out of control, we must act, in order to subject surveillance to the rule of law," the report states. Otherwise, "nobody and nothing is safe from snooping by our own countries' and even foreign intelligence services."

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