U.N.: Governments Coerce Companies to Do Their Surveillance Bidding



The United Nations' (U.N.) human rights office released a report today blasting the growing "de facto coercion of private sector companies" to do governments' surveillance bidding. 

From the report

There is strong evidence of a growing reliance by governments on the private sector to conduct and facilitate digital surveillance. On every continent, governments have used both formal legal mechanisms and covert methods to gain access to content, as well as to metadata. This process is increasingly formalized: as telecommunications service provision shifts from the public sector to the private sector, there has been a "delegation of law enforcement and quasi-judicial responsibilities to Internet intermediaries under the guise of 'self-regulation' or 'cooperation.'" The enactment of statutory requirements for companies to make their networks "wiretap-ready" is a particular concern, not least because it creates an environment that facilitates sweeping surveillance measures.

As tech blog GigaOM notes, "no names were named" among either governments or companies. However, it's not too hard to guess that the U.S. is a primary focus, since the report is quick to acknowledge that "concerns have been amplified following revelations in 2013 and 2014 that … the National Security Agency in the United States of America  [has] developed technologies allowing access to much global internet traffic, calling records in the United States, individuals' electronic address books and huge volumes of other digital communications content."

The U.N. paper criticizes that a preferred NSA argument – because metadata collection it doesn't divulge communication content, no one's right to privacy is violated – "is not persuasive." And, "increasing reliance of governments on private sector actors to retain data 'just in case' it is needed for government purposes" is "neither necessary or proportionate."

The intergovernmental organizations warns that as "mass surveillance technologies are now entering the global market… the risk that digital surveillance will escape governmental controls" is growing.

Calling upon nations to conform to U.N. guidelines, the report repeatedly says that the snooping practice violates international law and treaties. On that matter, all I can say is big whoop. Surveillance is a serious issue and it does violate people's rights, but international agreements don't override domestic law or autonomy, and the line of thought that the best way to deal with a big, abusive government is to entrust it with enforcing even more laws is head-spinning.

A more productive suggestion to ensure that "technologies are used to deliver on their potential towards the improved enjoyment of … human rights" is that "a dialogue involving all interested stakeholders, including member states, civil society, scientific and technical communities, the business sector, academics and human rights experts" should take place.

And that makes sense. More important than law is a social shift that could come from such a discussion. Individual Americans, particularly business owners and employees – not just at large companies like AT&T that are accused of being complicit in mass surveillance, but at smaller companies that engage in security camera partnerships with local law enforcement, or car repo businesses that gather millions of lincense plate images and sell them to police – have to decide whether or not they want to be complicit in surveillance behavior that threatens everyone's privacy. It's an issue that won't be solved overnight or by the well-meaning finger wagging of the U.N., since the technological capabilities we are grappling with are quite new, and we're only learning the consequences of them as the technologies emerge.