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Pariah State: The NSA's Global Surveillance Dragnet is Making the U.S. Very Lonely

Privacy advocates in Latin America are enraged at revelations that the U.S. spied on the leaders of Mexico and Brazil.

Photo Credit: U.S. Government/Wikimedia Commons


As the first formal probe by an international rights body into allegations of U.S. mass surveillance began here Monday, privacy advocates from throughout the Americas accused Washington of violating international covenants and endangering civil society.

Monday’s hearing took place before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an arm of the 35-member Organisation of American States (OAS), which includes the United States.

The heads of Brazil and Mexico are among the 35 world leaders on whose personal calls the NSA has reportedly been eavesdropping, according to new information made public last week but leaked earlier this year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Indeed, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has offered perhaps the most strident diplomatic response yet, cancelling a state visit to Washington in September upon being notified of U.S. snooping into Brazilian official affairs, including monitoring of the state oil company. Brazil is also leading a push to institute a new international agreement on privacy.

“I was in Brazil right after these revelations came out, and my sense is that this goes back to this idea of U.S. exceptionalism – that it operates by one standard and everyone else operates by another. Other countries are increasingly less willing to accept that this is how the U.S. functions in the world,” Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a watchdog group here, told IPS.

“Further, the unofficial response from Washington – ‘Grow up, everybody does this kind of spying’ – was very unappreciated by many in the region. That just served as confirmation that the U.S. doesn’t understand its evolving relationship with Latin America.”

The IACHR investigation could now indicate a more concerted reaction from Latin American countries, joining new opprobrium from European and other world leaders as well as an ongoing national discussion here over the scope of U.S. spying on private citizens.

“While the United States is having a huge debate over the legality or constitutionality of domestic mass surveillance, there’s been very little discussion of the legality of international mass surveillance,” Danny O’Brien, international director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital privacy advocacy group, told IPS.

“The worrying truth is that we have almost no safeguards in place regarding the surveillance of anyone outside of the U.S. That’s problematic because domestic laws were written with the assumption that the people we targeted were agents of a foreign power, spies or even major political figures abroad – not, say, everyone in a particular country.”

For its part, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has maintained that its surveillance programmes, which could be gathering data on the phone or online activities of upwards of a billion people, follow U.S. law and do not violate the privacy of U.S. citizens or foreigners within the United States.

In fact, increasing evidence suggests that regular exceptions have been made to these guidelines, but globally activists are increasingly frustrated with the U.S.’s refusal even to indicate that it is adhering to the spirit of international human rights norms.

The Washington-based IACHR, for instance, oversees the American Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1969, which explicitly guarantees the right to privacy. (While the United States has not ratified the American Convention, it did sign it in 1977.) Critics now want the IACHR to censure the United States for violation of this and other international norms.

“According to the U.S. explanations, all measures have supposedly been taken to respect the privacy of American citizens and those in US territories, however no legal protections apply to foreign nationals,” the Brazilian office of Article 19, an anti-censorship group, told IPS in a statement.

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