Human rights commission questions NSA surveillance

Members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ask about the limits of NSA spying

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

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags telecommunicationFrank La RueOrganization of American StatesU.S. National Security AgencygovernmentInter-American Commission on Human RightsinternetprivacySteven WattAmerican Civil Liberties UnionLawrence GumbinersecurityAlex AbdoRodrigo Escobar Gil

More about IDGNational Security AgencyNSAOASUnited Nations

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Grant Gross

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place