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Secret global government surveillance: I’ll spy for you, if you spy for me

Apr 24, 20184 mins

New report from Privacy International highlights the ‘dangerous lack of oversight’ for secret global surveillance networks and intelligence sharing between governments.

privacy breach - surveilling eye at a digital keyhole in a binary wall
Credit: Thinkstock

If you care about privacy and human rights, then information from a new report about secret global surveillance networks and the sharing of intelligence between governments is not good at all. In fact, the sharing of surveillance with intelligence and other governments is so “alarmingly under-regulated” that it is ripe for human right abuses.

Not that you’d imagine anything having to do with “secret surveillance networks” would be good news for privacy, but as Privacy International pointed out, it’s not just your government potentially holding sensitive information about you, but other governments scattered across the globe.

Most intelligence sharing agreements are kept secret, not just from the public, but also from some countries’ oversight bodies. Without proper safeguards in place, “states can use intelligence sharing as a way of outsourcing surveillance to each other, bypassing any constraints and limits on their own intelligence gathering — in effect, [they’re saying,] ‘I’ll spy for you, if you spy for me.’”

Five Eyes surveillance

Here are a few disturbing facts about Five Eyes surveillance that Privacy International obtained via U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. The Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance that includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K and the U.S.

The U.S. “conducts surveillance while based in secret facilities in partner countries, parts of which are not even accessible to the host countries’ own governments — including their oversight bodies.”

Those Five Eyes sharing arrangements were “enhanced” during the 2000s. Records disclosed by the U.S. State Department suggested that “the intelligence sharing agreement between the Five Eyes was amended and enhanced in the 2000s, although the details of any such agreement remain firmly outside of public view and public scrutiny.”

The NSA also disclosed new appendices to the intelligence sharing agreement between the Five Eyes. These records date from 1959-61 and update our understanding of the agreement by several years but nonetheless remain decades out of date.

And just think how much intelligence gathering has evolved since the 1960s! Surveillance tech makes it possible for governments “to collect, store, and share vast troves of personal information, including data collected via mass surveillance techniques.” Yet there’s no “clear legal obligation to even inform most oversight bodies” about intelligence sharing agreements.

Lawfare also took a hard look at the newly disclosed Five Eyes documents and explained what that they really say about intelligence-sharing agreements.

The authors wrote, “When the Five Eyes first agreed to this exchange of intelligence — before the first transatlantic telephone cable was laid — they could hardly have anticipated the technological advances that awaited them. Yet, we remain in the dark about the current legal framework governing intelligence sharing among the Five Eyes, including the types of information that the U.S. government accesses and the rules that govern U.S. intelligence agencies’ access to and dissemination of Americans’ private communications and data.”

Little to no oversight of intelligence sharing

In 2017, Privacy International sent national oversight bodies in 42 countries a series of questions related to intelligence sharing and oversight. Of those 42, 21 sent responses.

Oversight bodies for nine of 21 countries said there’s no clear legal obligation to loop the oversight committees into intelligence sharing arrangements.

Nine also said they had full or broad access to information about intelligence sharing.

The oversight body in France “indicated that it was prohibited from accessing such information and several others left ambiguous the level of access that they have.”

Only the oversight body of Canada indicated that “the intelligence agencies are required by law to provide them access to intelligence sharing arrangements.”

Not even one of the oversight bodies indicated that they actually had the power to authorize decisions to share intelligence.

The new report, Secret Global Surveillance Networks: Intelligence Sharing Between Governments and the Need for Safeguards, emphasizes the “dangerous lack of oversight.”

Privacy International wrote:

The findings have significant implications for human rights. As discussed in the report, intelligence sharing constitutes an interference with the right to privacy and must therefore be subject to safeguards well-established in international human rights law, including adequate oversight. Without appropriate safeguards, states can use intelligence sharing as a way to outsource surveillance, bypassing domestic constraints on their surveillance activities. Unregulated intelligence sharing can also contribute to or facilitate serious human rights abuses, such as unlawful arrest or detention, or torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Calling for greater transparency and oversight, Privacy International made a plethora of “urgent recommendations” about intelligence sharing arrangements.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.