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What would surveillance look like in a utopian world?

Web Foundation · January 27, 2016

Ahead of Privacy & Data Protection Day, Web We Want global campaign manager Renata Avila calls for a new deal on government surveillance.

Tomorrow on the 9th International Privacy and Data Protection Day we should be asking ourselves: Isn’t it time we demanded a new deal between citizens and intelligence agencies?  

Through considerable efforts of whistleblowers, civil society and the private sector in recent years we have begun to uncover more information the extent of government surveillance, particularly in the US and Europe. Now, questions at the core of this debate include: How much targeted surveillance is necessary, justified and proportionate? And is mass surveillance ever justifiable and compatible with human rights and human dignity? How do we make sure any type of surveillance is accountable to the citizens subject to it? Is encryption the only solution? Or should we consider other practices that increase the accountability of surveillance powers?

Never before has our privacy and the protection of our personal data faced such mounting threats. But we can find hope in the response of citizens: awareness and mobilisation of Web users is on the rise around the world, and the public are taking action to reject aggressive, overly-intrusive surveillance laws.

In Switzerland, a small privacy-oriented tech company Proton Mail collected 70,000 signatures, forcing a National Referendum on the country’s proposed surveillance laws. Meanwhile, in Poland nearly 10,000 citizens took to the streets to demonstrate against aggressive surveillance laws. After intelligence services caused instability to the Central Government itself, Argentina passed a comprehensive intelligence reform last year with input from local civil society voices such as Fundacion Via Libre. The Social Media Bill in Nigeria, which would have resulted in heavy monitoring of social networks was blocked after popular protest against it.

Clearly, this is a global debate and we need to look at the global picture so we can go further and explore proposals to balance government surveillance powers with increased transparency, accountability and oversight. We must use this debate and the resulting insights to improve government surveillance practice so that it not only safeguards the very freedoms that set us apart from terrorists and criminals, but also proves more effective for intelligence gathering.

That’s why we are hosting a panel discussion this Thursday entitled “Boundaries of Law” on the extent and nature of government surveillance around the world at the the 9th International Conference on Computer, Data Protection and Privacy in Brussels. The conference brings together academics, lawyers, practitioners, policy-makers, industry and civil society from all over the world and we invite them as well as those following the debates remotely to participate in the discussion. You can find us on Twitter @webfoundation @webwewant @avilarenata tweeting on #CPDP throughout the event.


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