Stance on Surveillance Reform Will Set Global Precedent
January 16, 2014
This is a signature moment for Obama’s presidency. He can either reinforce sweeping powers of intrusion that have yielded little advantage in the fight against terrorism but are producing a global backlash against US policies and companies. Or he can stand up to the security agencies and defend the right of ordinary people everywhere to privacy.
Kenneth Roth, executive director

(New York) – The US government risks undermining important policy objectives unless it urgently reins in US electronic surveillance practices and stops violating the privacy rights of millions of people at home and abroad, Human Rights Watch said today. In a letter to President Barack Obama ahead of a much-anticipated speech on electronic surveillance that he will give on January 17, 2014, Human Rights Watch set out specific reforms that the president should swiftly adopt.

“This is a signature moment for Obama’s presidency,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “He can either reinforce sweeping powers of intrusion that have yielded little advantage in the fight against terrorism but are producing a global backlash against US policies and companies. Or he can stand up to the security agencies and defend the right of ordinary people everywhere to privacy.”

Human Rights Watch enumerated key areas where the president can take immediate action, including ending bulk metadata collection, protecting the rights of foreigners abroad against unnecessary and disproportionate electronic surveillance, increasing the transparency of these surveillance programs, and ceasing US efforts to weaken technical standards. 

The US government is uniquely positioned to monitor global communications, with most of the world’s Internet traffic moving through US territory or companies. With this extraordinary power comes heightened responsibility to uphold the internationally recognized right to privacy, which also underpins other important rights, like the right to freedom of expression and opinion. Roughly 150 billion emails crisscross the globe daily, and both commerce and the flow of information depend on a borderless Internet. Other countries will look closely at the rules that the United States establishes on these matters as they debate crucial questions about privacy and Internet freedom across the world, Human Rights Watch said. 

“Virtually unchecked US electronic surveillance of foreigners abroad has already provoked outrage around the world,” Roth said. “Unless the president steps in to curb the practice, the US government will have a hard time credibly promoting online freedom.”  

Though congressional action is needed to fully address concerns over existing programs, the administration could take initial action and support reform legislation. Many of the reforms that Human Rights Watch called for are also supported by a five-member review group appointed by President Obama, which recently issued a report on US surveillance practices.