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Mass Surveillance Does Not Stop Terrorists, Europe's Top Rights Body Says

The assembly of the Council of Europe has been investigating government surveillance since last year and has heard evidence from Edward Snowden, the fugitive NSA whistleblower.

by Ben Bryant
Jan 26 2015, 6:20pm

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Mass surveillance is ineffective in the fight against terrorism, threatens human rights and violates the privacy enshrined in European law, Europe's top rights body has said.

Among a raft of non-binding proposals, parliamentary watchdogs should be given the power to approve intelligence agencies' budgets and whistleblowers should be offered statutory protection, a report by the assembly of the Council of Europe said.

The 35-page document drafted by Dutch parliamentarian Pieter Omtzigt proposes measures that should be taken by the assembly's 47 European member states before the "industrial-surveillance complex spins out of control." The assembly, which will now debate the report, provides recommendations to the European Court of Human Rights which are not legally binding but can be influential. European governments are free to ignore the assembly's recommendations, but must explain why if they choose to do so.

The report also says that current British laws may be incompatible with the European convention on human rights, an internationally binding treaty. British surveillance may contradict Article 8, the right to privacy; Article 10, the right to freedom of expression; and Article 6, the right to a fair trial.

In wake of Paris attacks, David Cameron calls for new powers to break encrypted communications. Read more here.

The assembly has been investigating the question of surveillance since last year, and in April heard evidence via videolink from Edward Snowden, the fugitive US National Security Agency whistleblower.

Its report was dismissive of the value of intelligence gleaned from mass surveillance, saying: "We have seen that mass surveillance is not even effective as a tool in the fight against terrorism and organised crime, in comparison with traditional targeted surveillance."

It does not specifically mention the recent Paris terrorist attacks in which 17 people were shot dead by terrorists, however. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has used the Paris shootings to call for widening surveillance powers, despite admissions from France that the attackers were known to the authorities, but that they discontinued eavesdropping last summer.

Citing independent US reviews of mass surveillance, the report said "resources that might prevent attacks are diverted to mass surveillance, leaving potentially dangerous persons free to act."

Some aspects of mass surveillance, such as the deliberate weakening of encryption, even present "a grave danger for national security" the report said, because such weaknesses "can be detected and exploited by rogue states, terrorists cyber-terrorists and ordinary criminals." Cameron has recently called for new powers to break encrypted communications.

UK will ask preschool teachers to spy on children in latest counter-terror proposals. Read more here.

Mass surveillance threatens "the very existence of the Internet as we know it" and "nobody and nothing is safe from snooping by our own countries' and even foreign intelligence services" without technology that safeguards privacy, the document added.

The assembly also sent a letter to the German, British and US authorities asking if they had circumvented laws restricting domestic spying by getting a third party to do it for them. The Germans and British deny the accusation, but the US has failed to reply.

The report concludes that the British response was probably true — because the UK's Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act already allows for the wide-ranging collection of personal data.

Eric King, deputy director of privacy NGO Privacy International, told VICE News: "This latest report highlights what has been said all along: intelligence agencies in the UK are in the business of mass, indiscriminate surveillance and there are few if any legal safeguards in place to protect human rights.

"It's embarrassing that the British government continues to neither confirm nor deny the essential facts behind this, limiting the opportunity for debate, limiting the opportunity for reform, and limiting proper accountability in the courts.

"Secret interpretations of secret laws are plainly not a sustainable position, and place democracy and the rule of law in jeopardy."

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