Snowden Treaty: Evolving the Privacy Dialogue

Michael In the News

On September 24th Edward Snowden and his key supporters unveiled a plan in hopes of curtailing the escalation of mass surveillance. The proposed International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers is aimed at getting nations to agree to set aside their own interests and do away with mass internet surveillance.

The proposed International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers christened, the Snowden Treaty, has made the group’s intentions clear. Edward Snowden, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Brazilian privacy activist David Miranda along with others held a press conference announcing the proposal. The full document is not yet ready for release, however, the current draft is already in the hands of several governments who are reviewing it.

In the press conference and the Snowden Treaty summary several key points have been laid out. First, governments that agree to the internet armistice would need to make changes to those mass surveillance laws and practices already in use. Signatories would also be required to “consider data protection and the right to privacy in all future programs and policies.”

In addition to changing the current tone of mass surveillance, Snowden Treaty signatory states must also ramp up their oversight. The treaty will include a requirement to “establish independent national supervision to ensure public transparency and accountability in their surveillance-related activities.” Also, to ensure that these standards are upheld in the long term there must be a comprehensive review of their surveillance practices, with the results made public, every 5 years.

The second key objective of the Snowden Treaty is to provide whistleblower protection. During the conference Glenn Greenwald outlined the purpose of this portion of the treaty:

There should be a regulation, an international framework in place that says that if you are a legitimate whistleblower who comes forward with information reasonably believed to be in the public interest, that you should not be prosecuted, and that if you are, it is the obligation of the international community to ensure that you get asylum and that your rights are protected.

Too often, as Greenwald also points out, countries respect the whistleblowers of other nations while condemning those in their own country. One needs to look no further than Russia- Snowden’s current country of residence- to see this paradigm being played out. With the Snowden Treaty, whistleblowers will not only be protected by those that sign the treaty but by those who do not as well. According to the summary, “states guarantee the right of residence in their countries and embassies for people claiming to be persecuted as whistleblowers until the appropriate proceedings for permanent asylum have been carried out in full.”

The Snowden Treaty and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

As of now it is unclear what governments will sign the Snowden Treaty- if any- and even what governments are currently reviewing the draft. However, regardless of the success of this particular treaty, progress has been made. The mention of anything 5 years ago suggesting the reality that we now know would have nearly landed you in an insane asylum- or be labelled as a conspiracy theorist at the very least. What this treaty does is help transition the conversation from the knowingly obtuse mass surveillance laws and practices to how we can walk some of those transgressions back.

The conversation should now be how we get our privacy rights back in the hands of the people. Rights that were undeniably guaranteed years ago have been systematically and unapologetically infringed upon by many nations. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, demands that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation.” This commitment was signed in 1948 by the same nations who are making egregious privacy violations today.

The biggest obstacle at this point is getting past what is known as the prisoner’s dilemma. This example is apparent in many facets of human nature but is highlighted in political, and geopolitical, cases such as climate change and mass surveillance.

In short, imagine this scene: played out in many detective shows and movies. Two people are caught for a crime. They are both undoubtedly guilty and both are being interrogated by police. In order to obtain a conviction the police want to place heavier charges on one of the perpetrators- thus putting an incentive on snitching.

If prisoner A and prisoner B both say nothing then they each get one year. If prisoner A cooperates with police then he gets no jail time but prisoner B gets four years. If both cooperate with police then they each get two years. They are in different interrogation rooms, and thus don’t know what the other is saying.

So the most rational option is to snitch, either you get no jail time or only two years. However, studies show that over time, given trust, that the two parties (prisoner A and B) tend to work together (i.e. not cooperate with police). However, this takes time, that we don’t necessarily have.

To apply this scenario to mass surveillance let’s say China and the United States are reviewing the Snowden Treaty. Ideally they would both sign the treaty and be done with it. But they don’t necessarily trust each other. And if say, China signs the treaty while the US doesn’t sign it then it would put China at a severe disadvantage on the geopolitical stage. The same is true if the US signs but China doesn’t. So the safest thing for them to do would be to not work together (i.e. cooperate with the police in the example above). This way they keep the status quo and neither is at a potential disadvantage.

It’s Not All Bad

With that being said, the Snowden Treaty isn’t at a total disadvantage. Nations have come together when the greater good is at stake in the past. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) which outlaws the production stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their components is one example. The treaty was first signed in 1993 and as of last month has 192 signatories.

Also, the UN privacy chief, Joseph Cannataci, has already publicly stated that mass surveillance oversight is “a joke”, and pointed out that in many ways surveillance is worse than even George Orwell imagined. In regards to the Snowden documents he said, “his revelations confirmed to many of us who have been working in this field for a long time what has been going on, and the extent to which it has gone out of control.” Having the UN on your side definitely strengthens your argument

Even if not a single country signs the Snowden Treaty one important step has been made. The conversation is beginning to shift. First, it was revealing and grasping the overreach of mass surveillance. Now, with this proposal we are beginning to talk about recuperating our privacy rights. Thing’s might not change next year, or the year after that, however, my beliefs are in line with Joseph Cannataci:

But I do think that – at least my view of things in a field like human rights – is the longer term view, right? The impact must be felt in the long term.


 feature image courtesy of greensefa via flickr

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