Edward Snowden Inspires Global Treaty for Online Privacy

Activists hope to enshrine fundamental rights to privacy against illegal mass surveillance for people around the world

The treaty would address privacy concerns globally. Credit: fStop Images - Epoxydude

Remember when John Oliver joked with Edward Snowden about the NSA's ability to collect dick pics? "The good news is there's no program named the Dick-Pic Program," the whistleblower reassured Oliver, and perhaps we should take that as some form of cold comfort.

The bad news is that two years after Snowden's leaks started ricocheting around the world, and despite some notable gains — a mass surveillance clause in the Patriot Act struck down, an ambitious new Internet Bill of Rights passed in Brazil — the surveillance state is fighting hard to hold on to the ability to vacuum up calls, emails and data on on all of us.

Last month a U.S. federal appeals court reversed a judge's order to stop the NSA from bulk collecting telephone data on hundreds of millions of Americans. Meanwhile, in Colombia, a recent investigation found intelligence agencies illegally collecting vast amounts of data on innocent citizens without judicial warrants, using American technology. And across the pond, UK intelligence services are lobbying hard for a new expanded "snoopers charter" to enshrine greater surveillance rights and data collection into law.

Dedicated program or not, that's a hell of a lot of dick pics sucked up by the surveillance state.

It's kind of funny, but not really. Because what we're watching is an entrenchment by governments across the world who, once they've developed a taste for the ever-expanding grab bag of affordable snooping technology, have no intention of kicking their mass surveillance habit.

It doesn't have to be like this. Whistleblowers who bravely show us how states work in the shadows are a public good, and the documents leaked by Edward Snowden made crystal clear how far surveillance had gone off the rails in the United States. The same is true internationally: Angela Merkel, Dilma Rousseff— nobody is safe and secure in their communications.

Now we have a chance to change this, on a global scale.

Looking at the arms trade for lessons in international regulation isn't an obvious place to start, but it's instructive. A global treaty to regulate an industry used to working in the shadows started out as a pie-in-the-sky idea, and the betting odds were slim. With arms pouring into war zones in Central America and elsewhere, leaving death and destruction in their wake, former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias wondered how the global arms trade, fueled by profit-hungry arms manufacturers, could ever be held to legally enforceable human rights standards?

Late last year and many battles (literal, rhetorical and political) later, Arias watched his idea became international law, in the landmark Arms Trade Treaty. Signed by more than 130 countries and ratified at the UN, the treaty is designed to make it more difficult for arms dealers to ship weapons to conflict zones rife with human rights abuses. The agreement is imperfect, with major arms-dealing nations like China and Russia opting out, but it's a massive step toward reigning in one of the shadiest businesses on the planet.

This is a case study the surveillance state may want to pay attention to, because lost causes turn into wins when people and movements set their hearts and minds on bringing about change. This week a group of privacy activists and campaigners, including the authors of this article, are previewing another pie-in-the-sky proposal — a global treaty to enshrine fundamental rights to privacy against illegal mass surveillance. The idea took flight in the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden, whose work inspired the proposal, and it feels as urgent as ever given that governments large and small continue to be addicted to the cheap thrill of illegal mass surveillance. 

Why a a global treaty? Because surveillance is abstract until it's personal. A drop of inspiration for the treaty came from the 2013 arrest of one of us, David Miranda, by UK intelligence services at Heathrow Airport, in an act of retaliation against the Snowden leaks. As the scope and scale of the snooping kept making headlines, and Snowden's initial temporary visa ran out the clock in Moscow, the two of us worked together on a campaign with global civic network Avaaz to push the government of Brazil — one of the more outspoken governments on the issue — to grant Snowden asylum there.

But it soon became clear that despite president Rousseff's public bluster against the NSA (her own calls were intercepted by the agency, it was revealed), it was going to be politically impossible for Brazil to go out on a limb on its own. With the mass surveillance genie so far out of the bottle, no single government is equipped to go up against it, much less set protocols for the protection of whistleblowers who reveal surveillance or other government crimes. A problem of this global scale requires a global response — an international legal framework to protect all of our privacy.

Wishful thinking? Maybe. But the idea is incredibly popular. When polled, majorities worldwide say they want something done to protect citizens against mass surveillance, and tech giants like Apple and IBM are already way ahead of the curve, encrypting user communications to protect against government snooping. The core principles of a treaty are already the topic of serious conversation at the United Nations; last month the UN's new special rapporteur on privacy, Joseph Cannataci, spoke on the need for a Geneva Convention-style law to safeguard our data and combat the threat of surveillance.

A draft of a treaty is circulating to a handful of sympathetic governments already, and in the coming weeks and months it will be circulated among other experts and civil society groups, to build out a bulletproof document. Last week author Naomi Klein even passed a copy to the pope's office (the two are now climate change activism allies), and the office has requested a copy in Spanish for review. The pontiff has a lot on his plate these days, but this issue strikes close to home; after all, the NSA spied on his communications during the Vatican conclave that elevated him to the papacy.

Papal blessing or not, the cat is out of the bag on this proposal — and soon, hopefully, the NSA and its partners in global surveillance will no longer get a pass on hoovering up our data, dick pics and otherwise.