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How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law and American Democracy

With Liberty to Monitor All – How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy. Human Rights Watch / ACLU, July 2014.

“The United States government today is implementing a wide variety of surveillance  programs that, thanks to developments in its technological capacity, allow it to scoop up  personal information and the content of personal communications on an unprecedented scale. Media reports based on revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden have recently shed light on many of these programs. They have revealed, for example, that the US collects vast quantities of information—known as “metadata”—about phone calls made to, from, and within the US. It also routinely collects the content of international chats, emails, and voice calls. It has engaged in the large-scale collection of massive amounts of cell phone location data. Reports have also revealed a since-discontinued effort to track internet usage and email patterns in the US; the comprehensive interception of all of phone calls made within, into, and out of Afghanistan and the Bahamas; the daily collection of millions of images so the NSA can run facial recognition programs; the acquisition of hundreds of millions of email and chat contact lists around the world; and the NSA’s deliberate weakening of global encryption standards. In response to public concern over the programs’ intrusion on the privacy of millions of people in the US and around the world, the US government has at times acknowledged the need for reform. However, it has taken few meaningful steps in that direction. On the contrary, the US—particularly the intelligence community—has forcefully defended the surveillance programs as essential to protecting US national security. In a world of constantly shifting global threats, officials argue that the US simply cannot know in advance which global communications may be relevant to its intelligence activities, and that as a result, it needs the authority to collect and monitor a broad swath of communications. In our interviews with them, US officials argued that the programs are effective, plugging operational gaps that used to exist, and providing the US with valuable intelligence. They also insisted the programs are lawful and subject to rigorous and multi-layered oversight, as well as rules about how the information obtained through them is used. The government has emphasized that it does not use the information gleaned from these programs for illegitimate purposes, such as persecuting political opponents. The questions raised by surveillance are complex. The government has an obligation to protect national security, and in some cases, it is legitimate for government to restrict  certain rights to that end. At the same time, international human rights and constitutional law set limits on the state’s authority to engage in activities like surveillance, which have the potential to undermine so many other rights.”

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