Why U.S. should care about surveillance abroad
April 16th, 2014
09:29 AM ET

Why U.S. should care about surveillance abroad

By Laura Pitter, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Laura Pitter is a senior national security researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Under growing pressure to rein in domestic surveillance, President Barack Obama recently offered a proposal to end the government's bulk collection of Americans' phone records. Under the new plan, those records would stay with phone companies but be accessible to the government with the permission of a judge. While the proposal is a step in the right direction, many questions remain about how exactly it will be implemented. But  even more important, it is just a small part of what needs to be done on comprehensive surveillance reform.

Still left unaddressed are mass bulk collection and indiscriminate U.S. surveillance practices abroad, which affect many more people and include the collection of the actual content of internet activities and phone calls, not just metadata.

A number of media reports, based on documents obtained by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, have exposed the vast and sweeping nature of these programs. According to one story, the NSA taps into main communication links of data centers around the world and collects millions of records every day, including metadata, text, audio and video. Another revealed that a program called "Mystic" had allegedly been recording “every single” telephone conversation taking place in one, unnamed country and then storing them in a 30-day rolling data base that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive. Another, last month, reported that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a court that handles intelligence requests, often in secret, authorized the NSA to monitor "Germany” – as in the country of. And yet another claimed that the NSA has developed and deployed an automated system, codenamed “Turbine,”  that could potentially infect millions of computers and networks worldwide with malware implants that can covertly record audio and video.

In the latest twist, Snowden told the Council of Europe last week that the United States even spied on human rights organizations like my own, although details of the allegation have not yet been provided.

It is not always clear under what legal authorities the U.S. government is conducting these activities. Section 702 of amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Amendments Act (FISA) authorizes the collection of a very broad swath of information including information about things important to national security, like “international terrorism…weapons of mass destruction” and “an actual or potential attack.” But it also authorizes the collection of information about things that merely “relate[] to” the “conduct of foreign affairs of the United States.”  Executive Order 12333 authorizes even broader collection – allowing for the acquisition of information merely about “foreign persons.” What is clear is that with provisions this broad the potential for indiscriminate surveillance is very high.

Why should Americans care about U.S. surveillance of foreigners abroad?

Besides the fact that an enormous amount of American communications get swept up in the surveillance abroad, there are principled reasons and practical ones. The fundamental rights to privacy and free expression so sacred to Americans are no less precious to those of other countries as well, and neither can flourish under the threat, or the fact, of mass surveillance.

From a more self-interested point of view, U.S. failure to respect privacy elsewhere could have a boomerang effect, giving other countries the green light to do the same to Americans. Data travels over the internet along the cheapest, most efficient route. Even a transfer of data between parties in the same country may result in the data transiting via other countries without the sender or recipient ever knowing. If the United States intrudes on the privacy of people abroad without compunction, other countries are more likely to do the same to U.S. data. In addition, U.S. surveillance practices are also harming U.S. business interests. Many companies are now being forced to offer alternatives to customer data being stored in the United States. Studies estimate a loss of between $35 billion and $180 billon to the U.S. cloud computer industry over the next three years.

U.S. government officials seeking to justify American snooping often point out that other countries have similarly broad surveillance laws on their books. But almost no governments come close to the United States in terms of capacity and resources. And if and when other countries do obtain the same capacity, the fact that the U.S. has chosen to engage in virtually unfettered surveillance abroad will be all the justification they’ll need to seek to do the same.

This does not of course mean that surveillance beyond U.S. borders has to stop entirely. There are certainly ways to conduct legitimate foreign surveillance in a manner narrowly tailored to important national security interests and in ways that are proportional to those interests. President Obama announced some measures in January that would restrain U.S. surveillance practices abroad, but these measures put limits only on the retention and dissemination of data collected, not the collection of the data itself.

As Obama himself said when announcing the restraints, the United States has “unique” surveillance capacities. “[T]he power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.” Citing the potential for abuse of basic rights, President Obama has come to recognize the need to curb domestic data collection at home. For those same reasons, it’s time to curb data collection and indiscriminate surveillance abroad as well.

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Topics: Spying • Technology

soundoff (55 Responses)
  1. GOP Prayer - GOPers, Read Together and Out Loud With Me

    The GOP Prayer/Mantra/Solution: Dear God...With your loving kindness, help us to turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then, with your guidance and compassion, we will whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. God...Grant us the knowledge to then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. God...Give us the strength during our speeches to repeatedly yell........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!..........and........GET RID OF SS AND MEDICARE!!!
    In your name we prey (purposely misspelled, or is it?)........Amen

    April 16, 2014 at 10:24 am | Reply
  2. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    My comment expressing admiration for the "Mystic" program was rejected.
    It was not sarcastic. It may not have been PC.

    April 16, 2014 at 10:59 am | Reply
  3. chrissy

    And YET the marvelous NSA had no knowledge of the mass meeting of Al Queada in Yemen? I would say that ship has sailed and the NSA is a complete and utter flop!! And Americans should also be concerned as well....simply because history has shown us how corrupt our own gov is that many in it would not hesitate to use our personal info to fit their greedy agendas.

    April 16, 2014 at 11:02 am | Reply
    • Hoss2678

      Don't think for one second that they didn't know. If you do then you are naive. There are many reasons why the US didn't strike the Al Qaeda meeting.... sources valuable to the US could have been amongst them. Did you ever think of that?

      April 17, 2014 at 8:55 am | Reply
  4. chrissy

    And since the DOD created this department in 1962 i have yet to find a single tragic event that it has prevented! The track record kinda speaks for itself and they should return to the drawing board and come up with a better plan. Total waste of taxpayer's hardearned bucks that could and should be used in a better way!

    April 16, 2014 at 11:20 am | Reply
  5. deniz boro

    WHO does what? Is this so much more important than the leaks you have domesticaly? This has become as boring a cliche as the White and back hats of the cowboys. Why shouldn't the governments just look whats going wrong domesticaly rather than spend so much ANXIETY, PARONOIA and FUNDS on external forces. Why the he do they feel the need to find out SOME EXTERNAL ENIMIES. The socia media wordwide is sick and tired of it. It even ran out of the jokes.

    April 16, 2014 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  6. Get over it, already!

    Should we call this monstrosity the American "Kabah"??? It looks just like the one in Mecca.......... and it is where "God" resides, is it not??? .......... every single one of our phone conversations is going to make a "pilgrimage" to the "Kabah" at least once in our lifetimes............. Ha! Ha! Ha!

    April 16, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  7. deniz boro

    God never seemed to express his/hersef so strictly before on such an individual. Those on the remaining part of the worl WHO have not seen the light might soon be deported. Or else etc., etc.

    April 16, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  8. ✠RZ✠

    Well if we're a broad I wouldn't want them scoping out my assets either.

    April 16, 2014 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  9. chrissy

    Lol @ RZ really? Lol it really is way past time to disband this dysfunctional department!

    April 16, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      What they really need to spy on is this, " $17,580,000,000,000.00" being about how much in the hole everybody is partly because of it.

      April 16, 2014 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  10. chrissy

    Yea no kidding @ RZ! A collossal waste of money! They haven't done a single thing to get credit for but a heckuva lot of damage! Its just utterly ridiculous that theyve been in business since 1962 and they really haven't a clue on security for this country!

    April 16, 2014 at 10:05 pm | Reply
  11. Get over it, already!

    My fellow Americans, let us all get down on our hands and knees, 5 times a day, and pay homage to our most awesome American "Kabah".......... it is our new notion of "Allah"........... it spies on us, it monitors our phone calls, it wastes our hard earned tax money, it is even guaranteed to run us into the ground, spending money we surely do not have........... all while assuring us that is keeping a close eye on those awful terrorists........... while we pray to our new "Allah", let us remember to ask "Allah" whether this "Kabah" and all the wasteful spending linked to it, is going to do us in before the terrorists get us??? Valid question, don't you think?????????

    April 16, 2014 at 11:46 pm | Reply
    • Get over it, already!

      Just amazing what "fear' causes humans to do.......... OBL must surely be laughing at us, from his grave, as he sees how he has definitely helped to bring down what he perceived to be a giant "terrorist", meaning us!!!!! By getting the Western World to spend these kinds of ridiculous sums of money, out of fear of a threat, he masterminded pushing us over the cliff, into debt that is surely drowning us!!!!!!!!! The folk who govern us dare not admit that.......... 😦 I bet, the millions of square feet that have been created in this new American "Kabah", surely surpass the total square feet occupied by the KGB Moscow offices, at the height of the cold war. And remember how we Americans used to laugh at those "fear based" commies, and how their KGB spies on them continuously??????? hmmmmmmmmmm............ we have come full circle huh????? We call ourselves democrats, but in reality, we are plutocrats, behaving like paranoid communists............ our awesome American freedom got flushed down our toilets along with our awesome good lifestyle, a long time ago............. 😦 How many of us are willing to admit it????????????

      April 17, 2014 at 12:51 am | Reply
  12. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    Fear is one of the rational feelings still intact after declining an elective lobotomy.

    April 17, 2014 at 8:03 am | Reply
  13. chrissy

    Personnally im not afraid so much as i am angry!!!! This department has done absolutely not ONE positive thing! It did NOT detect even the recent mass meeting of Al Queada in Yemen even though our government has claimed that this dept has the newest and best technology available! In fact since it was created in 1962 it has NOT prevented one single tragic event...making it the most wasted branch of our government financially!!! What it HAS done though is the beginning of alienation of our allies!

    April 17, 2014 at 8:32 am | Reply
    • Hoss2678

      You've got to be kidding... Please tell me you are kidding!!! If protecting your idiotic life isn't a positive thing to you then there is no hope for you or anyone that thinks like you.

      April 17, 2014 at 9:04 am | Reply
  14. chrissy

    Oh gees! What HAVE they done to protect ANY of us? Theyve broken up a cpl relationships by spying on their significant others...can't see how THAT protected me or anyone i know! They didn't prevent the Boston Marathon Massecre nor the many other homegrown terrorist attacks! Nor 9/11 even though i DO believe they knew of that one prior! And they didn't know of the lastest mass meeting until it was a video aired on the internet. Because if they had they wouldve deployed their "all powerful" drones! Guess you need to peddle that propoganda at the dump cuz ppl aren't in the buying mood for political crapola anymore! Lies and bs is all it is!

    April 17, 2014 at 11:01 am | Reply
    • Get over it, already!

      Thank you chrissy......... very well said........ 🙂

      April 17, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  15. Teddy Isolationists

    Foreign citizens have no rights to privacy as far as the U.S. federal government is concerned. Why should they? I say keep up the foreign mass collection of information.

    April 17, 2014 at 11:46 am | Reply
    • tyelko

      As long as you are willing to go to jail for your support of a criminal conspiracy.
      Unbeknownst do you, the FISC has no authority whatsoever to authorize anything in Germany. Its authority ends at the US borders, and if it supports the tapping of a node in Frankfurt, it is merely aiding and abetting criminal conduct in Germany.

      Given that the US conducts plenty of legitimate operations in cooperation with the Germans from German soil, I would suggest it is not within the interest of the US to generate public pressure against US operations from within Germany that would force the German government to shut down such operations. You might want to look at a globe and check how "easy" it is to access a satellite observing Afghanistan from the US....

      April 20, 2014 at 9:26 am | Reply
  16. Get over it, already!

    George Orwell was so right........ Big Brother is definitely "watching" us now........ 😦

    April 17, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  17. chrissy

    Let em watch lmao! They're getting an earful for sure. And constructive critisism is good sometimes right? Lol after all they've had nearly 52 years to get it right...you would think in that amount of time and with the mass fortune put INTO that department it would and SHOULD be damned near perfect wouldn't you? If the common working class worked in this way they would be out on their kiesters in a ny minute! More toad work ethics!!

    April 17, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Reply
    • Get over it, already!

      You've nailed it again chrissy! What is really bothering me, is that the trillions spent since 9/11, on "Homeland Security", has seriously impacted us in many negative ways. Let's put aside the fact that the entire muslim world absolutely hates us now. Let's try not to look at the 1 million Iraqis and 1 million Afghanis that we have murdered. Let's purely look at how spending such large sums of money on defense, wars, the military industrial complex (MIC) and their "spinoffs" such as this NSA/DHS/TSA expansion, has hurt us. Our federal and state budgets have been shot to hell. The federal government no longer had the funds it needs to pay for our health care. This is why medicare had to cut back so severely, our returning war veterans got screwed, and Obamacare had to be implemented! At the state level, budget cuts have taken away funding for our state parks, county hospital funding and most importantly quadrupled what we have to pay to send our kids to "formerly" state funded colleges and universities! How many Americans are willing to agree that the huge price we have paid for all this so-called "Homeland Security" has hurt us very badly indeed??? And after all these cuts to all the things that we Americans were receiving from our government, the politicians actually gave themselves a raise......... sickening beyond measure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      April 17, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  18. chrissy

    Too true @ Get over it already! And the amount of *ahem* work hours these elected clowns put in was decreased as well as their pay increase! Thereby making them nothing but high end welfare recipients that are set for life!!!!! Oh and then....theres all the kickbacks they get from their *special interest groups* AND their self imposed tax breaks!!!

    April 17, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Reply
    • Get over it, already!

      Yes chrissy, "Special Interest" politics has completely taken over our government. And the real problem, as to why 7000 American CEO's gave away 50 million superb American jobs, to Asia, on a silver platter, without even a fight, is not even being addressed!!!!!!! Much more serious than muslim extremists attacking us, is the exodus of our jobs to Asia, because that is what has shoved so many middle-class Americans into the poor-class. But, because we have become a Plutocracy, where the CEO's of rich corporations are allowed to Super-Pac (Campaign Finance) their way through any law that even remotely obstructs what they want, even if it is at the expense of the American people and our jobs, WE THE PEOPLE have absolutely no say anymore!!!!!!!!!!

      April 17, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  19. chrissy

    Given ALL that and then add insult too injury....they shut down the government purely out of spite! And they haven't accomplished much of anything (if anything) positive for this country since their last election. And possibly long before that!

    April 17, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  20. moiraesfate

    What the hell are you talking about? Of COURSE there is surveillance abroad. And there should be.

    April 17, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • tyelko

      There should be surveillance of countries whose cooperation is critical to ensure surveillance of enemies or crisis points?

      So what you say is that your bugging your neighbor's house is perfectly reasonable, even if you are critically dependent on said neighbor regularly allowing you to use his tractor for some heavy duty work?

      I assume you are willing to see the number of dead GIs triple when they cannot be evacuated to Germany any more and treated at the US facilities there? You are willing to see the US being blind about what happens in central Asia because it can barely reach satellites there?

      April 20, 2014 at 9:30 am | Reply
  21. chrissy

    Lol there should be huh? Why? They can't detect a "MASS meeting of Al Queada" in Yemen, which to the last update was THIS countries sworn enemy! Our government has NOT stated yet that our "war on terror" has ended has it??? Yet they learned of this event via a video on the internet....which between you and me is a heckuva lot cheaper than the NSA last i heard lol.

    April 17, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  22. chrissy

    Exactly @ Get over it already! Term limits and age caps are very much needed....they have become entirely too comfortable in these "jobs" lol. Boy it was extremely hard to post that term in relation to these jokers!

    April 17, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  23. Get over it, already!

    As if the Pentagon (DOD HQ) was not big enough and wasteful enough.......... now we have this huge monstrosity NSA/DHS/TSA complex, that we taxpayers have to pay for.......... and its not just the humongous cost of building these structures, it is the never ending costs of the maintenance of these huge buildings AND the paychecks and the benefits of the 1000's of people that we taxpayers now are forced to support!!!!!!!!!! OLD wise saying: If your sworn enemy does not kill you, your own fear based stupidity will......... 😦 Nations and entire civilizations have been sunk by the weight of their own onerous DEBT, many times throughout history.......... America's collapse will be just another sad example!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 17, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  24. Get over it, already!


    April 17, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Reply
  25. chrissy

    Yea disgusting isn't it? And the worst of it is justifying it by making the citizens constantly afraid. Only to discover that even WITH those huge financial sinkhole departments we arent one bit safer and a whole lot broker! And the top 1% a whole heckuva lot richer!!!

    April 17, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  26. Get over it, already!

    History will record (in the future) that US government agencies such as the: NSA, TSA and DHS have contributed significantly towards America's demise! Even hastening it, due to the tax burden placed upon the American people, in order to fund their recent (post 9/11) expansion!!!!! Most Americans know that Osama Bin Laden was a CIA operative, (1980-1990) trained by the CIA, back in the days that the Soviets were occupying Afghanistan. His terrorist group was called Mujahedeen-E-Khalq, at that time. The CIA provided OBL with loads of weapons and ammunition, including 1000's of Stinger Missiles! OBL turned on America, only after he was "ditched" by the CIA, once the Soviets left Afghanistan. One could argue that there are actually 100's of terrorist organizations throughout our planet, that have been funded and/or supported in one way or another, by the CIA. Any wonder that the rest of the world calls it: CCA = Criminal Creation Agency! You see guys, in our desire to be "King of the Mountain" we have sunk to becoming criminals ourselves. And it is really the repercussions of our very own "double dealing" that has often come back to haunt us......... 😦

    April 17, 2014 at 7:54 pm | Reply
  27. chrissy

    And thus we will be...King of Crap!

    April 17, 2014 at 8:18 pm | Reply
    • Get over it, already!

      Thanks chrissy.......... succinctly put........

      April 17, 2014 at 11:28 pm | Reply
  28. chrissy

    Lol @ Get over it, already! Not a problem. Happy Good Friday...play nice today and your secret will be safe ok? Lmao

    April 18, 2014 at 8:51 am | Reply
    • Get over it, already!

      Happy Good Friday and Easter Sunday to you too sweet chrissy! Maybe, just maaaaaaybe, remembering that Christ was crucified today and supposedly "rose" to save us, will motivate a few people in America (aka: Christians) to really really practice what Christ preached: Thou shallt not kill and Love thy neighbor........... 2 things that both the bullies on our planet, America and Russia, seem to conveniently forget, in their greedy and ever so ambitious desire to control the "clearing in the forest"........... 😦

      April 18, 2014 at 11:28 am | Reply
  29. Rick McDaniel

    The outrageous level of electronic spying being done on everyone, by everyone, has become symbolic of corruption in government. It is a widespread problem, in most countries today........simply because it is so EASY to do.

    April 19, 2014 at 6:33 pm | Reply
    • John McAfee

      Good comment. Think about this: if your average Joe Schmo could charge money to anybody he felt like, so that he could live the good life, and call it taxes, and this same Joe Schmo had a huge military and police force to protect him, just in case his enemies bother him, and this same Joe Schmo could then spy on anybody he felt like, tap their phones, their internet, their social media, just so he can decide whether he should call them traitors and send them to the slammer.............. THIS JOE SCHMO WOULD BE AN OUT OF CONTROL CRIMINAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      April 19, 2014 at 11:20 pm | Reply
  30. Mustafa ZulfuqurAli

    Thank you John McAfee. Shall we call this Joe Schmo, Uncle Sam?

    April 20, 2014 at 11:45 am | Reply
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