Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 12, 2013

Five surveillance principles proposed

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Privacy and Security,Private Sector — by Philip J. Palin on December 12, 2013

Several leading technology companies have called on world governments — and especially the US government — to abide by five principles when engaging in information surveillance:

1.  Limiting Governments’ Authority to Collect Users’ Information

Governments should codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data that balance their need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the Internet. In addition, governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.

2. Oversight and Accountability

Intelligence agencies seeking to collect or compel the production of information should do so under a clear legal framework in which executive powers are subject to strong checks and balances. Reviewing courts should be independent and include an adversarial process, and governments should allow important rulings of law to be made public in a timely manner so that the courts are accountable to an informed citizenry.

3.  Transparency About Government Demands

Transparency is essential to a debate over governments’ surveillance powers and the scope of programs that are administered under those powers. Governments should allow companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information. In addition, governments should also promptly disclose this data publicly.

4. Respecting the Free Flow of Information

The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.

5.  Avoiding Conflicts Among Governments

In order to avoid conflicting laws, there should be a robust, principled, and transparent framework to govern lawful requests for data across jurisdictions, such as improved mutual legal assistance treaty — or “MLAT” — processes. Where the laws of one jurisdiction conflict with the laws of another, it is incumbent upon governments to work together to resolve the conflict.

More background on this initiative and the guidelines can be found at reformgovernmentsurveillance.com

Eric Snowden’s exposure of National Security Agency practice has reminded me of a now quarter-century old critique of US intelligence practices by a British pal.  He commented that even the old rifle versus shotgun analogy did not capture the difference between US intelligence gathering and behavior by other spy agencies. “A shot-gun still requires some rough targeting.  US intelligence is more like a gas attack, wafting wherever the wind blows.”

My British colleague explained the difference as a matter of resources and especially budget.  “We have to choose our targets carefully.  The US has the money, men, and machines to spend billions on blind alleys.”

In this new century we have women and even better machines.  The so-called “black budget” also found in the Snowden leaks suggests the NSA spends about $10.5 billion per year, roughly 20 percent of the overall federal intelligence budget.  The British government spends about $3.2 billion on its overall intelligence operations.


I look forward to a great future for America – a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. (John F. Kennedy)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 12, 2013 @ 5:39 am

Interesting and helpful post! In the meantime [the rest of history?] the bottom line issue is Internet Freedom and its control not surveillance.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 12, 2013 @ 5:51 am


Comment by Quin

December 12, 2013 @ 7:27 am

I got to admit I laughed when I read #5. It’s like they ran out of ideas to agree upon and just made one up. Really?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 12, 2013 @ 8:30 am

Quin: I share your sense of “not really”. But number 5 is in many ways the most narrowly self-interested principle for signatories to the letter. This is not my domain, but based on some analogous work in ancient days, I think it probably signals the political naivete of some leading technologists.

Bill: Doesn’t the surveillance state actually require a greater readiness to explicitly dissent? The good-intentions of our guardians are dangerous mostly through incremental advance. As a result, we must risk appearing ridiculous (or worse) dissenting and insisting they stop doing good (as they seek to prevent near-term harm) in order to avoid an unintended evil that will only emerge over time.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 12, 2013 @ 8:39 am

The Lights are going out all over the world IMO! Not just chilling effect but new ice age!

Comment by JCOMISKEY

December 12, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

Transparency 2.0 is coming

Technology literature suggests that Nation-state surveillance capabilities will be surpassed by an internet-state of transparency and readily available counter-surveillance technologies.

The information age is a double edge sword.

The lights might be coming on.

Comment by Street Cop

December 13, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

Double edged is spot on. In my jurisdiction, it is impossible to convict a drunk driver without video and now hand-to-hand drug transactions also require video for conviction. There is public outrage at the thought of government drones flying over our homes but an Amazon.com drone is music to my ears. What a country………..can’t have it both ways. Those reading this already know that however.

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