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. Mustafa ZulfuqurAli

    Before there was democracy, there were kings. What did these kings do? They amassed huge amounts of money. How? By having soldiers that attacked their neighbors, and murdered and thieved, for the king (or queen). The average person lived in poverty. Due to the awesome writings of John Walsh, implemented by Thomas Jefferson, we have the modern democracy. But, over 240 years, this morphed into politicians who let the super-rich rule the show, just like kings in the past! So we have sunk to the masses being poor, desperate and jobless. The American experiment was fun while it lasted. Old saying: he who has the gold, makes the rules. That's why Bashar Assad is getting away with murder, while the super-rich watch and do nothing.

    April 20, 2014 at 3:55 pm |
    • Mustafa ZulfuqurAli

      Does the world realize that Bashar Assad is just another "king" that is afraid to lose his power, prestige, and most importantly, his money? Kings were known, throughout history, for being the biggest murderers and thieves, in their kingdom. But if anyone objected, they were "hung, drawn and quartered" or called traitors and tried for "sedition"...... when are we going to evolve towards a world that tries "kings" for their incredibly humongous crimes?

      April 20, 2014 at 4:03 pm |
    • Roz

      OSCE is observing what is happening in Ukraine:

      They report that in Estern ukraine TV is broadcasting only Russian news as stations are taken over by pro-Russian separatists. OSCE has forgotten to mention that stations were taken over because initially broadcasts from Russia were banned by so-called government in Kiev. Also, OSCE has forgotten to mention that in Kiev, the programs from Russia were terminated initilly by violent intimidation and later by official decrees. Another thing that was not noticed by OBCE is yesterday's massive demonstration in Kieb conducted by Ukraine's Nazis (Banderovci) who urged to kill Russians.

      April 21, 2014 at 11:16 pm |
  2. Mustafa ZulfuqurAli

    What was British Queen Victoria's most famous comment? It was: "Off with his head"......... with just one half sentence, she could commit the most horrible act of murder, of any of her so-called enemies.......... and totally get away with it........... because she was the "boss", the highest authority in the land.......... sad, but true. Queen Victoria was responsible for the biggest act of murder of humans and theft of their lands, on this planet. The British ended up "occupying" 46 countries, and murdering over 600 million people, over a 200 year period, that started with Queen Victoria's family. It was called colonization. They stole over 100 billion pound sterling, every year, from these 46 countries, for 200 years. This was the truth about colonization. Just unbelievable!

    April 20, 2014 at 4:14 pm |
    • Mustafa ZulfuqurAli

      So today, America has taken over the job of Queen Victoria. How? Think about it. If any nation dares to object to America being the boss, they get labeled as being the "enemy" and eventually get sanctioned or get bombed......... sad but true. America and the UK, have, together, been quietly trying to continue the "old game"............ control the world, one way or another, so that they can live the good life. But, the world had figured them out. Asia has definitely figured them out. As Asia gets financially stronger, the truth of the former "king" becomes more clear. By poor muslims attacking them, it became even more clear that the old "trick" doesn't work anymore. As the "kings" money runs out, the good life in their countries will fade away. Does Asia have to "behead" the king, just like France did, to ascend to the throne? Or can we figure out a better way to co-exist as humans?

      April 20, 2014 at 4:27 pm |
    • Robespierre

      Seriously... I wan't to know where you get your information from. I see the education system in your country is not working! It has not even been 200 years since Queen Victoria was born. The last monarch that would have been able to order an execution without trial would have been hundreds of years ago. Where on earth did you get the quote "off with his head" from? Alice in Wonderland? Colonization began hundreds of years before Queen Victoria's birth, not beginning with. If the British killed 600 million people over a 200 year period, lets say starting from 1800, the population of the world would be drastically lower than half of what it is now. There was barely over 2 billion people by 1940, so Britain killed almost 30% of the world's population? That's a little difficult considering Britain never held sway over more than 500 million people at it's height. So in effect you are saying Britain killed every single person in it's empire, including everyone in England and even millions of people in countries it did not control? I get that you have issues with monarchy, fair enough, they have been responsible for death and inequality. The thing is, when you state nonsense and try to pass them off as fact as you have, and in no less than 6 paragraphs it just makes it laughable. This must have been a joke. If so, I have been trolled and I take a bow. Nobody minds too much if you make a minor mistake! But everything you just said was false. You can do your own research you know! You have the internet.

      April 22, 2014 at 2:26 pm |
      • Mustafa ZulfuqurAli

        I was educated in America........ can you blame me.......... Ha! Ha! Ha!

        April 22, 2014 at 7:46 pm |
  3. Shanti

    I am so glad that some rare individual are finally starting to see the light...right, nothing has changed. Kings are waering disguises nowdays called democracies, but they still rule the world in the same old ways...

    April 22, 2014 at 11:18 am |
    • Mustafa ZulfuqurAli

      Thank you, Aunty Shanti........ 🙂

      April 22, 2014 at 10:38 pm |
  4. Mustafa ZulfuqurAli

    America's response to the 9/11 attacks was an 80-20 solution to a 20-80 problem. Management guru Peter Drucker will surely agree with me. What do I mean by that? Over the last 20 years, "king" America has been assailed by 2 so-called enemies. Muslim extremists were just 20% of the problem. Superb high-paying American jobs going to Asia, was 80% of the problem. With 80% of our politicians possessing either a law degree or a political science degree, they had absolutely no clue how to solve either problem. So when 9/11 happened, ignorance and lethargy was replaced by a "call to arms"....... and so 80% of our resources got allocated towards fighting the "war on terror".......... Big Mistake......... because now 80% of available resources were being spent on 20% of the problem. And with Halliburton Director Dick Cheney as Secretary of Defense, the fox was indeed watching the hen house, and so instead of 500 billion dollars getting spent on the Iraq War, 3 trillion dollars got wasted on it! Ask Joe Stiglitz, he even wrote a book about it! Meanwhile, the incompetents in charge had no clue how to stop the exodus of our jobs to Asia. As so we have a rather forlorn "king" today, with no money in the kitty, confused, lost and still incompetent, but sitting on over 5000 rusting nuclear weapons. Not a good situation.

    April 22, 2014 at 1:18 pm |
    • Mustafa ZulfuqurAli

      A possible "real" solution? Has anybody noticed how Germany has been "bucking" the negativity in Europe? Well, her name is Angela Merkel. She has a PhD in Physics. Can we Americans get a clue? Politicians with Law Degrees and Political Science Degrees, and Hollywood backgrounds, have had enough decades to screw things up for America, don't you think? How about we figure out how to find a few human beings of the quality and caliber of an Angela Merkel. Honest, simple, smart as hell, does not put up with crap, get's things done. period. If we have to go to Lawrence Livermore Lab to hire a PhD in Physics, to be our President, then let's do it, without further delay, and before it's too late! Depending on Hillary Clinton or Bobby Jindal to pull our tractor out of this quicksand, at this precarious point in our history, would be another big mistake.

      April 22, 2014 at 1:32 pm |
  5. Michael Marley

    Just my opinion on old activity: The US should be concerned about domestic spying by domestic organizations, and foreign spying on domestic activity. Using a feedback loop, and system exists that is used to extract information from targets and create situations to continue the extraction. A remote means is used to listen and broadcast to transmitters the words are signaled by the teeth when spoke out loud, and the feedback loop is built using the same sort of method. People in remote locations can hear, for example, warren buffet or wealthy peoples conversations. Find a way to stop waves within the RF and other broadcasts messaging heard by the the human mind.

    April 23, 2014 at 12:25 pm |
  6. 100 % ETHIO

    Jew are good on watching.

    April 25, 2014 at 11:05 am |
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