At a moment when President Obama is pushing for increased surveillance of electronic communications even as the Justice Department insists that warrants aren't needed to authorize pawing through our email, it's worth reading a recent United Nations document that suggests such snooping threatens more than our privacy. Dated April 17 of this year, the report from the U.N.'s Human Rights Council points out that people under scrutiny by government officials tend to be a bit reticent about criticizing those officials.
In his report, Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion, writes (PDF):
Innovations in technology have facilitated increased possibilities for communication and freedom of expression, enabling anonymity, rapid information sharing, and cross-cultural dialogues. At the same time, changes in technologies have also provided new opportunities for State surveillance and intervention into individuals' private lives.
Even as electronic communications become increasingly common and surveillance of the same becomes simpler for official snoops, legal protections for private communications have failed to keep pace with new technologies and practices.
In many countries, existing legislation and practices have not been reviewed and updated to address the threats and challenges of communications surveillance in the digital age. Traditional notions of access to written correspondence, for example, have been imported in to laws permitting access to personal computers and other information and communications technologies, without consideration of the expanded uses of such devices and the implications for individuals' rights.
Whether the lag in legal protections is by accident or design is a matter for speculation, though I suspect it's a combination of both. We've seen the consequences in the United States in the use of archaic laws governing the use of telephone pen registers to authorize stingray technology to locate mobile devices. The result around the world is a growing climate of surveillance that can leave dissidents, activists and just plain folks of all stripes all too vulnerable to the scrutiny of apparatchiks about whom they have complaints to voice.
The right to privacy is often understood as an essential requirement for the realization of the right to freedom of expression. Undue interference with individuals' privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas. Restrictions of anonymity in communication, for example, have an evident chilling effect on victims of all forms of violence and abuse, who may be reluctant to report for fear of double victimization.
Even professional journalists with significant resources and lawyers on call find themselves a bit close-mouthed when under the microscope. On Monday, Martha Mendoza, a Pulitzer Prize-winner employed by the Associated Press, said that the Justice Department's secret snatching of AP phone records had a "chilling effect" on the ability of the press agency to do its work. Individuals and small groups, especially those in explicit opposition to their governments, can be expected to suffer even more from surveillance.
Until the law catches up, keep in mind that what technology takes away, it can also restore — if you're proactive. Encryption can protect communications and frustrate perusal of email, phone calls, computer files and other data. In recent days, Turkish protesters have used a variety of technologies to circumvent snooping and keep their communications private.