Calls to Protect Citizen Privacy in the Digital Age

In light of revelations that the United States National Security Agency (NSA) has conducted extensive personal data collection and mass surveillance over the last decade, fifty American computer scientists have signed an open letter urging the U.S. to uphold citizen privacy and reform NSA policies.

The letter acknowledges the need for effective homeland security measures and protection of American citizens, but maintains that these efforts must be balanced with a respect for privacy. “Every country, including our own, must give intelligence and law-enforcement authorities the means to pursue terrorists and criminals, but we can do so without fundamentally undermining the security that enables commerce, entertainment, personal communication, and other aspects of 21st-century life.” [1]

One of the primary problems the computer scientists hold with the NSA’s surveillance activity is the vulnerabilities inherent to bulk data collection. When the government collects mass data, citizen information becomes less secure. “The choice is not whether to allow the NSA to spy. The choice is between a communications infrastructure that is vulnerable to attack at its core and one that, by default, is intrinsically secure for its users.” By extracting information from user devices and placing it in external servers, personal data is put at greater risk for identity theft, for example. The letter also argues that invasive surveillance chills the right to free speech and poses a threat to democracy.

The letters refers to five suggestions for privacy reform offered by a coalition of large tech companies, including AOL, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo [2]. The companies advise the government to establish data collection limitations; enforce oversight, accountability and transparency; respect the global flow of information; and establish data sharing procedures when dealing with other countries. They cite mutual legal assistance treaties—negotiated agreements between governments on the sharing of information— as one mechanism for improving international cooperation on data issues.

At the international level, the United Nations has also taken action on the issue of privacy rights. In December 2013, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the acknowledgment of online privacy as a human right [3]. The resolution, recognizing an “international right to privacy in the digital age,” calls upon governments to respect and protect the right to privacy [4]. The resolution urges countries to ensure oversight, transparency and accountability for state surveillance activity. Additionally, because the specific language of the resolution calls for states to protect the human right to privacy, the resolution thus recommends states not only regulate their own practices but ensure that private businesses—including technology companies like Google and Facebook, which have called for surveillance reform—respect the privacy of users as well. 

[1] http://masssurveillance.info/
[2] https://www.reformgovernmentsurveillance.com/
[3] http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=46780&Cr=privacy&Cr1#.Uzsb5IWGpfc
[4] http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/related_material/UNGA_upload_0.pdf


This article is part of the Winter 2014 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.