Solving the ‘Big Brother Problem’ that affects every one of us

“Big Brother is Watching You”

By Salil Shetty, Secretary General at Amnesty International

The ‘Big Brother Problem’ has helped to kick off this year’s discussions of the most pressing problems facing the world today as the World Economic Forum meeting gets under way in Davos, Switzerland.

This is an important recognition of the urgency of the issue. It is one that affects every single one of us and is an area of law that needs to be resolved.

Some of the most memorable headlines of 2013 involved personal privacy, data security and intelligence gathering issues from all corners of the globe – from the US to Brazil, from Australia to India.

But what has bothered me about the conversation to date is the way it has been framed by some defenders of mass surveillance programmes. We must choose, they say, between security or privacy, protection or liberties.

This is a simplistic way of looking at the issues and it has damaged our ability to identify sound public policies that strike a sensible balance between these concerns.

The question that should be asked is: is it right for the state to store, and share, information about our personal phone calls, emails and social media interactions… potentially indefinitely

The answer, I hope, is one that no one can dispute. People have a right to privacy; governments should only be looking at our information if, and only if, they have probable cause to suspect wrongdoing.

Of course law enforcement agencies have an obligation to investigate potential crimes. But that duty is not a licence to conduct a fishing expedition. Law enforcement agencies should not let their investigations become the electronic equivalent of a trawling net that indiscriminately scoops up everything that passes, with the catch put on ice indefinitely.

The surveillance of metadata tracks every instance in which we email, speak to, or communicate with someone online. It is no different than having someone spying on your house and monitoring who comes in and who leaves, at all times of the day.

This is an unacceptable breach of privacy that cannot continue. We must find a way to square the privacy vs. security argument in a more practical way for the future.

A starting point would be significantly greater openness about the scope of what is being monitored and why. We cannot effectively assess the extent of the threat to our privacy and determine what additional safeguards are needed unless we know what governments are collecting and what uses they make of that information.

This need for additional safeguards is clearly demonstrated by the way GCHQ, the UK’s surveillance headquarters, is operating. GCHQ evades legal scrutiny by outsourcing its surveillance operations to the USA, asking the National Security Agency (NSA) to do what it itself would never be able to do.

The NSA, in turn, has grown into one of the most terrifyingly powerful government bodies in the world. Since 9/11, it has essentially been given a blank cheque to expand its sphere of influence exponentially, without any fear of oversight or transparency.

It was welcome news on Friday to hear President Obama affirming the need to safeguard the privacy of people, both in the US and around the world. The President’s acknowledgements are certainly a step in the right direction, after such a disappointing year of revelations about the extent of the US’s intelligence gathering.

However, the truth of the matter is, the substance of the President’s most recent proposals hardly revolutionises the issues.

The President will still retain the power to authorise surveillance activities without having to answer to judicial review and the future of the country’s bulk collection of metadata remains unclear.

Furthermore, despite the President’s signal that he is prepared to recognise the privacy rights of those of us who live outside the USA, his policy falls short on specifics.

Most of the President’s proposals will now need to be voted on by Congress before they can take effect. Even before the President spoke, bills had been proposed by Senators Baldwin and Leahy. But these legislative fixes themselves were limited in scope as they did not apply to people living outside of the country.

There is no doubt that striking the right balance between privacy and security requires careful, thoughtful analysis. Policy makers need to take a long, hard look at the choices they’ve made over the years that have created a world of Big Brother states.

Looking to the future, my hope is that our governments will not use rhetoric about security as any further justification for sacrificing a fundamental human right: the right to privacy.

This oped was originally published in the Huffington Post

Salil Shetty is currently at the World Economic Forum, watch the panel discussion “The Big Brother Problem” here