Civil Libertarians Reveal Chilling Effects of Mass Surveillance


EspañolMass government surveillance in the United States is having broader and more damaging consequences than previously understood, according to a new report issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Their report, titled “With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy,” addresses the damage bulk electronic surveillance has had through a series of interviews with journalists, lawyers, and US government officials.

With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy

“The report finds that government surveillance and secrecy are undermining press freedom, the public’s right to information, and the right to counsel, all human rights essential to a healthy democracy,” the ACLU affirmed in a press statement.

HRW and the ACLU contend that the US government’s spying apparatus has made it more difficult to ensure privacy, leading journalists and lawyers to seek more elaborate alternatives to find and protect information from the government’s prying eyes.

Their 120-page document includes statements from journalists who cover national security, law enforcement, and intelligence matters that say it has become progressively more difficult to investigate and find reliable sources. These troubles have only grown ever since the US government began more strictly prosecuting leaks and whistleblowers.

“[The landscape] got worse significantly after the Snowden documents came into circulation. If you suspected the government had the capability to do mass surveillance, you found out it was certainly true,” Peter Maass, senior writer for the Intercept, commented during his interview.

Journalists say their ability to seek out sources is threatened by restrictions on communications with intelligence officials, harsh prosecutions on leaks, and the Insider Threat Program, which calls on federal employees to report the “suspicious behavior” of their co-workers that could result in a leak of classified information. Government officials and other possible sources are therefore less willing to cooperate with the press for fear of the potential consequences.

“We’re not able to do our jobs if sources are in danger,” explained a national security reporter, who preferred not to disclose his name.

According to the report, the government’s large-scale collection of metadata and communications has damaged a journalist’s ability to gather information on sensitive topics. Disposable “burner” phones, encryption, and air-gapped computers are among the measures reporters feel they need to resort to in order to protect their data.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in terms of the government’s efforts to control information,” said Jonathan Landay, a veteran national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.

According to the report, government surveillance has changed more than just the way journalists do their jobs.

These programs have also increased pressure on lawyers, and has it made it a tougher task to maintain confidentiality with their clients, the report explains. Attorneys depend on their ability to privately exchange information, however, the constant threat of being watched by the government has undercut their capacity to provide an adequate criminal defense.

It has also hampered the ability of lawyers to build and maintain the trust of their clients. Like journalists, lawyers have also been forced to seek alternatives to exchange in information and obfuscate their digital footprints.

“I’ll be damned if I have to start acting like a drug dealer in order to protect my client’s confidentiality,” stated Tom Durkin, a national security defense attorney.

In their report, both HRW and the ACLU put forward a series of detailed recommendations for the US government to change the current surveillance system. They advise the US government to disclose more details about their surveillance programs to the public, reduce their restrictions on sharing information with the media, and enhancing legal protection for whistleblowers.

Spying is censorship surveillance
“Stop Watching Us” demonstration against NSA mass surveillance in Washington D.C., October 2013. (Stephen Melkisethian)

“Surveillance is undermining media freedom and the right to counsel, and ultimately obstructing the American people’s ability to hold their government to account,” the report states.

“The United States holds itself out as a model of freedom and democracy, but its own surveillance programs are threatening the values it claims to represent,” says Alex Sinha, the report’s author and a Aryeh Neier fellow at HRW and the ACLU. “The United States should genuinely confront the fact that its massive surveillance programs are damaging many critically important rights.”

In an exclusive interview with the PanAm Post, Sinha spoke of the long-term consequences that government surveillance programs may have on society in the United States.

If secret domestic spy operations continue, Sinha believes “it could have real implications for many activities in our democracy, including certain types of journalism, especially if the government continues its aggressive push to stop leaks. More and more officials might decide it’s simply impossible to interact safely with the press — even about unclassified matters.”

Sinha also does not believe the US public is fully aware of the potential implications of such surveillance programs.

“I don’t think we have fully confronted just how much large-scale surveillance can change our society. People recognize that their own privacy might be at stake, but it isn’t necessarily obvious yet how much we also depend on the privacy of other people around us — such as journalists, lawyers, NGOs, doctors, and more. Our report documents some of these connections and costs for the first time, so perhaps it will help to change how we think about surveillance.”

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