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Secrecy, scale of PRISM raise alarms

President Barack Obama defends NSA surveillance activities. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Government surveillance of electronic communications "should be regarded as a highly intrusive act that potentially interferes with the rights to freedom of expression and privacy and threatens the foundations of a democratic society," Frank La Rue, U.N. special rapporteur for freedom of expression, warned in a report issued less than two months ago. "States should be completely transparent about the use and scope of communications surveillance techniques and powers." At the time, the report might have called to mind nations such as China and Iran with high levels of state surveillance. But today, following revelations of a broad, secret digital surveillance program led by the U.S. National Security Agency, La Rue's words seem instead to have been a prescient rebuke of U.S. policies. 

The U.K. Guardian and The Washington Post reported Thursday that the National Security Agency, or NSA, has been conducting surveillance of emails, file transfers, audio and video chats, photographs, and search histories, among other things, of customers of nine U.S. digital firms. Under the program, known as PRISM, the agency has collected data from customers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, PalTalk, Skype, YouTube, and Apple, according to a secret document obtained by the news organizations. U.S. officials have since acknowledged the existence of the program, while asserting its legality. The Guardian reported today that British intelligence officials have a similar data surveillance program, set up by the NSA with the same digital companies.

Free expression advocates have immediately raised alarms. "Mass surveillance is never justified -- democracies should be standing up for digital freedom at a time when it is under threat from countries like China and Iran, not undermining it," said Kirsty Hughes, head of the U.K.-based Index on Censorship. Article 19 said that overly broad surveillance programs have "a massive chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression and information. It is well known that people are much less likely to express themselves and share information if they know or suspect that their personal records are being collected by the government." CPJ has documented numerous instances in which overly broad surveillance has thwarted the free flow of information and, in repressive nations, has led to attacks and imprisonment of journalists.

U.S. officials have portrayed the surveillance program as a necessary step to combat terrorism, and say that it is authorized under legislation that was renewed by Congress in December. But a number of U.S. senators warned--vaguely at the time because they could not acknowledge a secret program--of insufficient checks and overly broad authority.

La Rue homed in on such problems worldwide in his report. He urged nations to establish clear legal frameworks to ensure that surveillance programs are "strictly and demonstrably necessary to achieve a legitimate aim" and "adhere to the principle of proportionality." He also urged that states be "transparent about the use and scope of communications surveillance techniques."

As the Guardian reported, PRISM was aimed at customers living outside the United States, or those communicating with people outside the country. That is a very large category.

Three years ago the Obama administration proclaimed the United States to be a global leader in promoting of freedom of expression, in what was widely heralded as a watershed speech on Internet freedom by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Newseum in Washington. She referenced President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who spoke about the importance of freedom of expression as early as 1941.

"The final freedom," Clinton said, "one that was probably inherent in what both President and Mrs. Roosevelt thought about and wrote about all those years ago, is one that flows from the four I've already mentioned: the freedom to connect - the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the Internet, to websites, or to each other."

Clinton went on to talk about the issue of both state censorship and surveillance, only abroad not at home, and in the context of urging U.S. firms not to provide the technology to enable other nations to either restrict what their citizens can read or see online, or watch what they are doing on the Internet.

"We are urging U.S. media companies," she said, "to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments' demands for censorship and surveillance." That message is undermined by the secrecy and scale of the U.S. government's surveillance efforts. 

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