Signing Mass Surveillance Declarations and Petitions: Should Academics Take a Stance?

Published 30 Oct. 2013 at Freedom to Tinker.

Quite often, especially since the Snowden revelations began, tech policy academics will be approached by NGO’s and colleagues to sign petitions ‘to end mass surveillance’. It’s not always easy to decide whether you want to sign. If you’re an academic, you might want to consider co-signing one initiative launched today.

Today, about 250 academics from 26 countries join forces in a declaration ‘Academics Against Mass Surveillance’. The list of supporting academics is impressive, including several contributors to this blog – and I’m happy to be among them. Media attention is picking up in Europe, and probably will get to the U.S. soon given the large and increasing number of U.S. signatories.

Academics often hesitate to join such initiatives. There are, of course, reasons not to. You might be genuinely against supporting constitutional principles (pun intended) or feel you have conflicting interests because you are reviewing the laws in an ‘official’ role (expert in court or parliament). What made me decide to support it, is that the text of the declaration is quite dry: it supports the legal reality of constitutional obligations for states. As such, the entire declaration can be seen a scientific consensus that states need to respect the law – I blogged about those constitutional criteria earlier at Freedom to Tinker. The text doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, but as quite often with declarations: ‘in die Beschr√§nkung zeigt sich der Meister’.

Even if you are involved as an expert in your local parliament or a court, as I have been and perhaps will be, I reckon stating the legal reality is never problematic. Moreover, academics have a social responsibility. And obscuring your normativity for the sake of perceived objectivity is not really an issue here.

Such a broad academic support sends an important message: continuing as such is not supported by (our) research. There’s no sensible excuse for maintaining the status quo. If you feel like signing, the website tells us that the declaration is still open for signatories.

Full text:

Last summer it was revealed, largely thanks to Edward Snowden, that American and European intelligence services are engaging in mass surveillance of hundreds of millions of people.

Intelligence agencies monitor people’s Internet use, obtain their phone calls, email messages, Facebook entries, financial details, and much more. Agencies have also gathered personal information by accessing the internal data flows of firms such as Google and Yahoo. Skype calls are “readily available” for interception. Agencies have purposefully weakened encryption standards – the same techniques that should protect our online banking and our medical files. These are just a few examples from recent press reports. In sum: the world is under an unprecedented level of surveillance.

This has to stop.

The right to privacy is a fundamental right. It is protected by international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Without privacy people cannot freely express their opinions or seek and receive information. Moreover, mass surveillance turns the presumption of innocence into a presumption of guilt. Nobody denies the importance of protecting national security, public safety, or the detection of crime. But current secret and unfettered surveillance practices violate fundamental rights and the rule of law, and undermine democracy.

The signatories of this declaration call upon nation states to take action. Intelligence agencies must be subjected to transparency and accountability. People must be free from blanket mass surveillance conducted by intelligence agencies from their own or foreign countries. States must effectively protect everyone’s fundamental rights and freedoms, and particularly everyone’s privacy.

January 2014

Ps.¬†The declaration is an initiative of four researchers of the University of Amsterdam Platform for Privacy Research, of which I’m a member. But I didn’t have any part in the initiative, nor in the drafting of the text.

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