Digital Privacy Is “The New Frontier Of Human Rights”

The impact of mass, digitally-enabled state surveillance upon individuals’ privacy has been described as “the new frontier of human rights” by Member of the European Parliament, Claude Moraes, who was giving an annual lecture on behalf of the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy at the London School of Economics on Friday.

Moraes is chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), which conducted an inquiry into electronic mass surveillance of European Union citizens last year, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s digital dragnets.

Moraes said there is a growing understanding among members of the European Parliament of the need to balance state surveillance practices with individual privacy rights, although he noted there is variation at the level of individual MEPs and Member States, with some (such as the U.K.) taking a far more pro-surveillance and anti-privacy position.

He described the notion that there is an either/or dichotomy between security and privacy as a falsehood — arguing that targeted surveillance and proportionate data capture processes are more effective counter-terrorism measures, and reiterating Snowden’s argument that gathering “haystacks” of information hinders rather than helps the cause of tracking down a few interesting “needles”.

“Fighting terrorism is actually fought better by understanding that targeted information is a far better thing, rather than this mass surveillance approach,” argued Moraes.

“People in Germany who understand what happens when you have unfettered mass surveillance, where information is then out there being used for negative purposes, understand where that can lead. But if you have targeted information… then we are in a society where that privacy balance is preserved,” he continued, adding: “It’s the terrorists who want to deprive us of the freedoms that we all fight for. They’re not interested in these freedoms.

The privacy agenda from the European Union now is very strong

“That’s what I find is happening in the current narrative. Certainly across the European Union with more and more of my colleagues understanding that fighting for a balance and an understanding that mass surveillance has its damaging aspects is something that we need to deal with.”

By way of an example of a more nuanced mindset in the European Parliament when it comes to surveillance and privacy, Moraes gave the example of the Passenger Name Record agreement between the EU and the US which he said the Parliament will shortly be referring to the European Court of Justice — to judge whether it is “proportionate and necessary”.

He also referred back to the ECJ’s decision, back in April, to strike down the European Data Retention Direction that was made in the wake of 7/7 terror attacks — with the Court determining it to be disproportionately broad and contra to individual privacy rights.

Moraes noted that such “untargeted data grabs” are the typical political trigger response to terror attacks, and make the business of creating the sought for balance between surveillance and privacy more difficult to achieve — given that security services will always ask for more surveillance powers at times of heightened terror fears, while politicians will want to be seen doing something to shore up national security.

But — at a European Union level, at least — he said those knee-jerk security reactions are being more critically examined now, in a post-Snowden data retention “enlightenment” (as opposed to what he dubbed the pre-Snowden “data retention dark ages”).

“Today as a result of having our inquiry even those people who started to call [Snowden] a traitor must now realize we have a whole group of people who must now at least understand that mass surveillance is something that is at least troubling and that we must do something about it,” he said. “The privacy agenda from the European Union now is very strong.”

Moraes said the LIBE committee is focusing the next stage of its electronic surveillance inquiry on exploring the notion of a digital bill of rights as a way to create structure to support more proportionate surveillance practices that do take individual privacy rights into consideration.

However, despite more support for a “privacy agenda” at the European Parliament level he cautioned there are still huge vested interests pushing in the other direction — so continuing to bang the drum for mass digital surveillance as a security panacea. It’s therefore imperative that the EU throughly interrogates the technical and moral complexities underpinning this new human rights frontier, he said.

“The next phase of this enquiry into mass surveillance has to be about our security, a digital bill of rights, about where encryption is going, what the cloud means, where our privacy is going. Privacy is critical. And the idea that there is going to be no privacy unelect, or no idea of where we place privacy has got to be wrong,” said Moraes.

“The next phase of our enquiry has to be on where we take this concept of privacy, where we take the concept of regulation. It is an extremely challenging time… I don’t have huge faith in many Member States to do this, there’s so many vested interests, vested security interests to not do this — but we have to try and do this.”

He added that the big challenge for privacy rights activists now is articulating a strong moral case for privacy, so spreading “more powerful narratives about surveillance” and educating people on why privacy matters — at a time when security concerns and commercial technology services are pushing against it like never before.

“Ultimately the Member States will have to step up to the plate, because they ultimately control the agenda. If people in this room don’t convince the individual Member States and governments of the big countries to make shifts on privacy, and to change the moral and political climate around security and privacy then of course we won’t make real progress. And every time we get the shocks and changes in atmosphere around terrorism then we’ll take a step back. And of course we see that today — with ISIS and ISIL,” he said.

“We need a more powerful moral narrative, more powerful technical narrative… Here’s where this issue is different from many other issues, the knowledge level is very low, amongst people more widely, because it is very technical, because it’s very complex, so although it’s the new frontier of human rights it’s a very complicated frontier of human rights… It’s very different from other human rights issues — it’s one where we have to educate others because they will not always see the importance of it.”