The U.S. government needs to answer for human rights abuses related to the National Security Agency's massive worldwide surveillance of Internet communications and telephone records, privacy advocates told an international human rights board Monday.
The NSA is conducting surveillance on "hundreds of millions" of people worldwide, said Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Human Rights Program, speaking to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), part of the Organization of American States (OAS).
"The government has sought to justify this mass surveillance on national security grounds, yet official reports indicate that the NSA has conducted surveillance of the communications of world leaders , of allied foreign powers, U.N. and E.U. offices, foreign corporations and endless numbers of innocent Americans and foreign nationals," Watt continued.
Press reports this year on the surveillance programs raise questions about unchecked authority and the effect on freedom of speech, added Frank La Rue, special rapporteur on the freedom of expression at the United Nations. Secret surveillance programs will "inevitably" lead to abuses, he said.
"What is not permissible, from a human rights point of view, is that those who hold political power or those who are in security agencies ... decide by themselves, for themselves, what is going be the scope of breaching the right to privacy," La Rue said.
Members of the IACHR asked pointed questions of a U.S. delegation, but Lawrence Gumbiner, deputy permanent representative of the U.S. to the OAS, said the U.S. did not have time to prepare a response for the board. A half-month partial government shutdown earlier in October prevented U.S. officials from gathering the needed materials after they were given notice of the hearing in late September, he said.
The U.S. will respond to the commission's questions in writing, Gumbiner said.
IACHR Commissioner Rodrigo Escobar Gil of Colombia chided Gumbiner for using the government shutdown as an excuse for not responding to the hearing, which was initiated by an ACLU request. The U.S. delegation missed an "important opportunity" to explain its surveillance programs and provide transparency, he said.
Escobar Gil also questioned the scope of the NSA surveillance. Nations have the right to conduct surveillance to project themselves, but they should not have "absolute power to do so," he said. "It must be subject to restrictions, rules, procedures."
Some estimates have the NSA conducting surveillance on 1 billion people, Escobar Gil said. "What are the limits?" he said. "The first question is whether there is actually such broad leeway to be able to surveil such a wide range of people, or are there limits? What are the restraints on that power?"
The NSA and members of President Barack Obama's administration have defended the data collection and surveillance programs as necessary to protect the U.S. against terrorism.
The NSA programs are reviewed by Congress and surveillance requests approved by a special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, defenders of the programs have argued. People living outside the U.S. have no legal protections to privacy under the U.S. Constitution, defenders have noted.
The NSA's surveillance of hundreds of millions of foreign telephone calls and Internet communications raises legitimate questions about a global right to privacy, said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. The NSA programs targeting people overseas allow the agency to collect any communication related broadly to foreign intelligence, not just terrorism, he said.
The NSA programs' goals are to "make virtually every international communication fair game for surveillance," Abdo said. "Simply put, if every country were to engage in surveillance as unfettered as the NSA's, we would soon live in a world of pervasive monitoring."
If every country would share surveillance information as much as the U.S. does, "there would be no refuge for the world's dissidents, journalists and human rights defenders," he added.
Abdo asked the commission to adopt recommendations that the U.S. respect long-established international rights to privacy and free expression.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is [email protected]