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Surveillance Laws: Time to Reform the Status Quo

Dillon Mann · August 24, 2013

The Financial Times has today published a letter from the Web Foundation and other civil society groups in response to the detention of David Miranda and the destruction of hard drives at the Guardian‘s offices. In the letter, we note that “online privacy is being eroded at a breakneck speed by blanket surveillance” and we call for “a fundamental review of surveillance laws, with full transparency and extensive public input”.

Joining us in this call are leading UK groups Article19Big Brother WatchOpen Rights Group and Privacy International.

You can read the full letter on the FT website here, or pasted below. We urge all our readers and supporters to join us in this call.

Sir,

The debate and fall out from David Miranda’s detention at Heathrow and GCHQ’s destruction of The Guardian’s hard-drives continues to rage. John Gapper’s piece ‘Do not blindly trust official guardians of our security’ (22 August) raises many important points – particularly regarding ‘whether governments oversee [surveillance] properly’.

It is clear that now is the time for a public debate and a reform of the status quo. Online privacy is being eroded at a breakneck speed by blanket surveillance, and unless steps to reform are taken immediately, the notion of free and secure online communications will be relegated to the annals of history.

But why does this matter? The argument that benign government surveillance saves lives, and those not breaking the law have nothing to fear from blanket state monitoring is a dangerous fallacy.

The right to privacy has long been a foundation of British liberty and has also underpinned much of the social and economic innovation delivered by the Web in recent decades, allowing businesses to generate billions of pounds of value for shareholders and society. More broadly, along with a free press, people’s ability to exercise their right to information and freedom of expression online is now critical to the future of our democracy. Of course, terrorists and criminals also use the internet and this must be combated. But like offline crime, cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism should be fought in a proportionate and targeted way, and law enforcement and intelligence agencies must be subject to proper checks and balances. Blanket government surveillance by default, with laws enforced in secret, will always be unacceptable.

Labour’s call for a parliamentary enquiry is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough. In the wake of recent events, nothing short of a fundamental review of surveillance laws, with full transparency and extensive public input, will suffice. Otherwise, within a few short years, we will look back and rue the benefits – in business, health, science, education and society – that a free and open internet, predicated upon private and secure communications, could have delivered.

Dr Agnès Callamard, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19

Dr Gus Hosein, Executive Director, Privacy International

Anne Jellema, Chief Executive Officer, World Wide Web Foundation

Jim Killock, Executive Director, Open Rights Group

Nick Pickles, Director, Big Brother Watch

[Signatories are in alphabetical order of last name]

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  1. dan

    August 25, 2013

    Why not adopt the Trusted Computing Group protected environment but have a reliable, privacy-friendly organization secure the keys?

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    1. Ross Anderson

      September 7, 2013

      Because (a) the organisation would be compelled to cooperate by the government of the place where its key people were located and (b) the TCG mechanisms would undermine competition in both hardware and software markets, which would not only harm consumers but make it easier for governments to compel treachery in the future.

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