Forget the plague of CCTV cameras that pepper London's streets like creepy, metal rat-bastards, it's governments monitoring your emails and tapping your phone calls that should have you more concerned. I know that sounds like I'm sat here in my tin foil hat and anti-CCTV pixel hood, constantly peeking over my shoulder while I type, but it's a solid fact that authorities have been surveying private conversations between US citizens and foreign contacts for a while now, all targeted at will without any kind of regulation.
As winds and waves crashed against America's east coast this week, Amnesty International and their associates gathered in the Supreme Court, Washington – not to determine if these government snooping rights are acceptable, but if they even have the right to challenge them at all. A challenge that's in its fourth year of debate.
"The idea that your conversations are not your own and that your privacy is being intruded upon without your knowledge, for no reason, is frightening," Suzanne Nossel – Executive Director of Amnesty International USA – told me.
"I think we value a free media and the attorney-client relationship. Those things are well established in US law and I think they’re understood around the world, so interference with those communications – the chilling of those communications – could really interfere with some very fundamental aspects of society.”
The situation boils down to the National Security Agency (NSA) and the use of the 2008 amendments of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In the past, the US government had to gain permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor communications between foreigners and US citizens and explain their need for the information. In post-9/11 hysteria, the Bush administration pushed to skip the court regulation altogether and, in the process, created a gargantuan surveillance initiative over US civilians – all with zero accountability. It's like fucking 1984 come to life, maaan.
Since those changes, Amnesty International – as well as journalists, lawyers and other activists – have been fighting for the right to challenge the seemingly infinite power of the NSA. On Monday, this all came to a head and the Supreme Court heard the arguments of why (and why not) the surveillance program should be challenged and was met with the full force of the Obama administration.
“The idea that we would be denied the ability to challenge the law really is sort of Orwellian, in that the nature of it is secret surveillance without a warrant, meaning no one would ever know if they were being surveilled. So who would be able to prove that they had the standing to sue? It’s a very convoluted, circular reasoning from the government.”
In an attempt to block judicial review, surely the US government is reflecting the same kind of surveillance power it possesses – authoritarian and unwarranted control. But even in a time under Obama's authority, which you would expect to be a better time for civil liberties, citizens have seen Obama-pledged policy dashed.
“It’s disappointing. I think there were grave concerns raised about the Bush administration's over-reach and willingness to trade away civil liberties and human rights in the fight against terror, and I think a lot of hopes invested in the Obama administration that there would be greater respect for both international human rights laws and US constitutional protections," Nossel said. "What we’re seeing in this case is that they really are towing the line and defining a regime of very broad wire tapping – people who aren't even suspected of any kind of wrong-doing, without a warrant and then trying to stand in the way of the legal review of it.”
Back in the UK, the widely criticised Communications Data Bill is currently undergoing the scrutiny of Parliament. The bill would require internet service providers to store details of our internet use and allow authorities to access it. Despite criticism, Home Secretary, Theresa May, is pushing forward and expects it to become law by 2014. Always one to please the people, Teresa. The future of the NSA and Amnesty court case is now just a waiting game.
"The case was heard on Monday and it was a pretty vigorous argument with a lot of questions. It’s dangerous to deduce too much from what happened in those arguments because you really don’t know what people are thinking and how they’ll come out. We’re certainly pleased there was the opportunity to air the issues, so now we wait for a decision on if this challenge can proceed. It’s a bit of a waiting game; we’re at their mercy.”
Follow Sam on Twitter: @sambobclements
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