by Sana Saleem, Courage Foundation Advisory Board
During the Stockholm Internet Forum this year, a State Department representative was quick to flaunt reforms put in place by the US Government to ‘counter US mass surveillance programmes.’ However, he was unwilling to respond when faced with the simple question “If you are willing to reform laws and mend things, why not honor the man who triggered it, why not bring Edward Snowden home?”
Too often, whistleblowers aren’t valued for the reforms they instigate. Even as government worldwide are considering new ways to limit mass surveillance, there is scant discussion about the need to honor and protect whisteblowers.
The world needs more whistleblowers because those in positions of power are often expert at hiding corruption from the public. People with integrity and a desire for truth and justice within the political system are often our best hope for bringing light to this corruption.
But as much of the world’s press extensively reports on Wikileaks and the Snowden revelations, we must not dismiss the trepidation that comes with reporting the truth and exposing misuse of power. This trepidation will not dissipate unless there is a collective effort to protect and defend whistleblowers, and reform laws that allow for prosecuting them.
There’s also the pressing need to keep using the information provided by whistleblowers to push for necessary reforms and protections. Today is Day 4 of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) ‘Necessary and Proportionate’ week of action. The EFF is calling on governments to ensure surveillance law reform is guided by key principles. Today we focus on principle 4: the ‘Integrity of Communications and Systems, Safeguards Against Illegitimate Access, Protection on Whistleblowers, and Right to An Effective Remedy’.
What is meant by the ‘Integrity of Communications and Systems’ in practice? The NSA, or any other government for that matter, should not be able to compel service providers or hardware or software vendors to build surveillance or backdoors into their systems. These companies also should not collect or retain particular information purely for state surveillance purposes.
We now have confirmation that governments are going above and beyond compelling companies to build backdoors into their services. In an article posted on the Intercept this week journalist, documentary maker and Intercept co-founder Laura Poitras documents how the NSA is tapping into Germany’s largest telecommunications providers by accessing the passwords of the system administrators. This revelation was greeted with both shock and deep anger by the telco engineers. Governments need to go beyond merely not forcing companies to comply with backdoor requests, they must put an immediate stop to the accessing whole systems covertly. This point addresses the second element of principle 4, when state authorities illegitimately access personal data.
There is no possibility of protecting against this when it’s happening behind the backs of service providers and hardware and software vendors. This leaves the onus on governments, who, in democratic societies, are accountable to their citizens. The third part of this is an onus on government to protect their whistleblowers. The Obama administration, in what the Nieman Reports has labeled the “Big Chill”, is operating amid unprecedented secrecy—while attacking journalists trying to tell the public what they need to know
Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson:
Several reporters who have covered national security in Washington for decades tell me that the environment has never been tougher or information harder to dislodge,
One Times reporter told me the environment in Washington has never been more hostile to reporting.
Protection of whistleblowers is critically important for the protection of a just society. But it’s not just whistleblowers under attack: it is also increasingly difficult to advocate for whistleblowers given the government and the media’s treatment of those who seek to protect whistleblowers.
The Courage Foundation was set up to provide legal and policy support for those who have made a decision to stand up to the abuse of power, risk their career and, in some cases, family life, so that our liberties are protected. It is for this reason that the need to provide stronger protections for whistleblowers, in such a difficult climate, is incredibly important.
Finally, what happens when the state conducts illegal and warrantless surveillance against its citizens? Snowden’s revelations have revealed state intrusion into the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans and citizens around the world, without proof for suspicion. Does the legal system allow us to challenge such surveillance in court? If it does, what would happen to the US government if they were found guilty of illegally surveilling you or me? The Necessary and Proportionate principles argue for civil and criminal penalties imposed on any party responsible for illegal electronic surveillance and those affected by surveillance must have access to legal mechanisms necessary for effective redress.
Tomorrow is Friday, day 5, in which the EFF and its supporters around the world will call on governments to improve safeguards for International Cooperation and Extraterritorial Application of Human Rights Law. The Courage Foundation stands beside the EFF’s campaign and calls on all rights groups and activists seeking to preserve an Internet free from surveillance to support this campaign.
It was little over a year ago when Edward Snowden performed an act of remarkable conscience. Snowden’s actions have empowered a generation of us to stand up to abuses and to do the right thing, even when it’s not convenient. With the increasing power and resources of state surveillance programs, the world is in dire need of more whistleblowers to continue this fight.