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.