Growing Consensus on Necessary Surveillance Reforms

On December 9, AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Linkedin, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo! issued a call for governments around the world to reform their surveillance laws, and released a set of principles to guide such reform. These principles align well in many ways with principles that civil society groups released in July 2013 applying human rights concepts to communications surveillance. The International Principles on the Application of Rights to Communications Surveillance, known as the “Necessary and Proportionate” principles, have the support of the Center for Democracy & Technology and over 300 other civil society organizations.

While the respective principles differ in some important ways – the Necessary and Proportionate principles usually go further than do the company principles – there is enough commonality to suggest ample space for civil society and industry to move forward on a common set of norms and reforms that should inform the debate about surveillance law globally. CDT has prepared a paper that explores these commonalities.

Specifically, both the companies and civil society groups call for:

  • Surveillance law to be clearly codified;
  • Particularized, as opposed to bulk surveillance;
  • Independent judicial oversight of surveillance;
  • Transparency of surveillance law;
  • Transparency of surveillance activities;
  • Clear rules and efficient processes to resolve conflicts of law that may arise; and
  • Balancing government needs with privacy rights, particularity requirements.

Our comparison also shows that with respect to U.S. law – which has been the subject of much discussion as a result of the surveillance activities of the U.S. National Security Agency – the USA FREEDOM Act, the leading intelligence surveillance reform bill, would promote many, but not all, of the reforms called for in both sets of principles.

With President Obama set to give a major speech on surveillance reforms this coming Friday, he should account for the growing consensus about these reforms while deciding the Administration’s actions.

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