The last several months have been filled with somewhat disturbing revelations regarding the extent of Internet and communications surveillance. There have been tales of innocent individuals caught in the web of intelligence, such as Canadian spying on Brazilian economic power-players, and heads of state kept under close watch by the N.S.A. Sadly, the American president maintains that these activities are necessary for effective security and counterterrorism, and our own prime minister continues to avoid meaningful conversation on the issue. It is clear that when the net of surveillance is cast widely, the privacy of innocent individuals is threatened. Whether the threat of terrorism is an appropriate justification for such breaches of privacy has been the subject of much debate, and is perhaps somewhat beside the point, since it appears that surveillance is here to stay.
The Russian government has sought to expand surveillance prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics, as has Germany’s intelligence agency. For this reason, the best way forward for governments seeking to balance concerns of security with respect for individual freedoms is to advance an ethical model of surveillance. Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt appears to have done exactly that.
Speaking at SeoulCyber2013, a high-level conference on internet governance, Bildt enumerated a group of principles to shape internet surveillance. They have been modeled by a group of non-governmental organizations. This group developed the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, which aims to develop a model that is governed by concerns of necessity and proportionality. The principles attempt to strike a balance between surveillance as a reasonable tool for security, and the rights to individual privacy and freedom of expression. Robust definitions of the principles are: legality, legitimate aim, necessity, adequacy, proportionality, competent judicial authority, due process, user notification, transparency, public oversight, integrity of communications and systems, safeguards for international cooperation, and safeguards against illegitimate access (they can be found on the group’s website). These principles propose a system of surveillance that is transparent; it seeks to balance human rights and state security.
Bildt publicized these aims in his speech to SeoulCyber2013, stating that “we have a common duty to fight [terrorism and crime], but to do it without endangering the values of freedom and an open world that are so central to us. Security and freedom. Freedom and security. The two should go hand in hand.” The impact of these concerns being legitimized by a high-level government official cannot be understated because it provides hope with regard to bettering surveillance policies. In countries where confidence in governance has dropped to historic lows, this kind of proposal provides the transparency and public oversight that surveillance desperately needs.