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Civil society has slammed the US government following recent revelations about the surveillance of citizens’ online activity and telephone communications.
The individual responsible for the leak is whistleblower Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of defence contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton.
Snowden shared classified material on top-secret National Security Agency (NSA) programmes, including the Prism surveillance programme, with The Guardian and The Washington Post, both of which published their first exposés early this month.
He says that his disclosure of Prism and FISA orders related to NSA data capture efforts was an effort to expose what he believes is excessive government surveillance of Americans.
In a statement addressed to the Human Rights Council (HRC), civil society body, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), expressed concern over the revelations and the fact that US authorities make the results of that surveillance available to other governments such as the UK.Of equal concern, says the APC, is the indication of apparent complicity of some US-based Internet companies with global reach.
“These revelations suggest a blatant and systematic disregard for human rights as articulated in Articles 17 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as Articles 12 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” it says.
It adds that the application of surveillance mechanisms to the heart of global digital communications drastically threatens the protection of human rights in the digital age.
“We call for protection of those who have made these violations public. As Mr Frank La Rue [HRC special rapporteur on freedom of expression] notes, laws ‘must not be used to target whistleblowers… nor should they hamper the legitimate oversight of government action by citizens’. We urge states to protect those whistleblowers involved in this case and to support their efforts to combat violations of the fundamental human rights of all global citizens. Whistleblowers play a critical role in promoting transparency and upholding the human rights of all,” the APC notes.
It also calls on the HRC to act swiftly to prevent the creation of a global Internet-based surveillance system by convening a special session to examine this case and supporting a multi-stakeholder process to implement the recommendation of La Rue that the Human Rights Committee develop a new General Comment 16 on the right to privacy in light of technological advancements.
Describing what the Snowden-US saga means in the South African context, professor Anton Harber, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at Wits University, says the fact that US security machinery has been systematically collecting – without warrants – information on every single phone call in that country is worth a close look if SA wants to understand the meaning of its own move to greater secrecy, especially with the imminent signing of the Protection of State Information Bill into law.
The first lesson is how even the biggest and strongest country in the world cannot stop leaks, says Harber. The nature of data now is that it is too easily copied and moved around the world to stop it coming out, particularly in anything resembling a democracy, he adds.
Even more repressive countries like China have struggled to contain the flow of information in the age of WikiLeaks, he notes.
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