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"After wading into the sea of NSA-related surveillance revelations that have emerged during this past year, we highlighted five specific surveillance programs that have a particularly outrageous and broad impact on the human rights—including privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly—of people around the world." (Photo: Light Brigading)

Five US Surveillance Programs Undermining Global Human Rights

Those of us in the United States often like to think—rightly or wrongly—that our overall human-rights record is in pretty good order.  However, even those who view the US as a global human-rights leader have had to take a deep breath when considering the past year of Big Brother-like surveillance revelations.  A major UN body highlighted these revelations—along with a decidedly sobering array of other US human-rights issues—in a set of recommendations back in April.  In order to keep drawing attention to these surveillance-related problems, CDT and the ACLU submitted comments this past Monday to the United Nations describing five particularly egregious surveillance programs that have had a grievous impact on human rights around the world.

Every four years, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) evaluates all of a country’s human-rights commitments during a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).  During the UPR, the UN HRC examines the promises a country has made—i.e., in human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and evaluates to what extent that country is living up to its obligations.

We make it crystal clear that on a daily basis, US authorities are intercepting the private communications and other personal electronic data of hundreds of millions of people across the globe, the vast majority of whom are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

In anticipation of next year’s UPR of the United States, CDT and the ACLU sought to do something unique: after wading into the sea of NSA-related surveillance revelations that have emerged during this past year, we highlighted (and used our technical expertise to explain) five specific surveillance programs that have a particularly outrageous and broad impact on the human rights—including privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly—of people around the world. We aimed to provide an accessible technical description of the five programs and explain the impact these programs have on millions of people throughout the world, regardless of any suspicion of wrongdoing and without any judicial oversight. The five programs we analyzed include:

  • DISHFIRE, an initiative through which the US collects hundreds of millions of private text messages worldwide every day;
  • CO-TRAVELER, through which the US captures billions of location updates daily from mobile phones around the world;
  • MUSCULAR, which entails the US’ interception of all data transmitted between certain data centers operated by Yahoo! and Google outside of US territory;
  • MYSTIC, a US program that collects all telephone call details in five sovereign countries other than the US, as well as the full content of all phone calls in two of those countries; and
  • QUANTUM, a US program that listens in real-time to traffic on the Internet’s most fundamental infrastructure and can respond based on certain triggering information with active attacks, including the delivery of malicious software to the end-user’s device.

In our submission we make it crystal clear that on a daily basis, US authorities are intercepting the private communications and other personal electronic data of hundreds of millions of people across the globe, the vast majority of whom are not suspected of any wrongdoing.  The intercepted data includes information about where those hundreds of millions of people are, with whom they correspond, and what they say in their correspondence.

At the end of our submission, we make a number of recommendations to the US about how it can improve its respect for human rights in this context.  The recommendations focus on halting the US’ indiscriminate interception of individuals’ private communications data, getting greater (or, to be more accurate, any) Congressional and judicial oversight for these programs, stopping the attacks under QUANTUM, and ensuring that the relevant orders and regulations are brought into line with human-rights law.


© 2014 by Center for Democracy & Technology

Sarah St. Vincent

Sarah St.Vincent is CDT’s Human Rights and Surveillance Fellow.  Her work focuses on ensuring that surveillance practices comply with international and regional human rights laws.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall

Joseph Lorenzo Hall is the Chief Technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology.  His work focuses on the nexus between technology, law, and policy, ensuring that technology and technical considerations are appropriately embedded into legal and policy environments.

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