Human Rights Watch and ACLU Report Shows Impact of Mass Surveillance on Journalists and Lawyers

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July 31, 2014

A July report by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU finds that mass surveillance programs used by the U.S. violate the rights of journalists and lawyers and create a chilling impact on their work. With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale U.S. Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy includes extensive interviews with legal and journalistic professionals who argue that their freedom of expression, association and the rights to a fair trial are impeded by mass surveillance. According to the report, programs like those revealed by Edward Snowden go beyond protecting U.S. national security, and as a result  “journalists and their sources, as well as lawyers and their clients, are changing their behavior in ways that undermine basic rights and corrode democratic processes.”

Surveillance programs, such as those that collect meta-data on American’s phone calls, imped journalists’ ability to contact confidential sources. Journalists interviewed in the report noted that government officials are “substantially less willing” to act as sources out of fear that they will lose their jobs if they are discovered to disclosed information to reporters. This has forced many journalists to take painstaking efforts to protect their sources, including encrypting emails, using “burner” phones and only meeting in person. According to the report, journalists feel that “rather than being treated as essential checks on government and partners in ensuring a healthy democratic debate, they...may be viewed as suspect for doing their jobs”

Lawyers have also expressed concerns that their principles are being impeded by surveillance. Lawyers “rely on the ability to exchange information freely with their clients in order to build trust and develop legal strategy” particularly in criminal defense cases. But many interviewed in the report felt that they no longer had confidentiality with their clients, particularly when the government deemed there to be a national security interest in a case. The result, according to the report, is the “erosion of the right to counsel, a pillar of procedural justice under human rights law and the US Constitution.”

The report acknowledges that the U.S. government does have an interest and obligation in protecting the country against national security threats. However, the report argues, “many of its surveillance practices go well beyond what may be justified as necessary and proportionate to that aim.” In order to remedy the impacts of mass surveillance, the report offers the following recommendations:

  • end large-scale surveillance practices that are either unnecessary or broader than necessary to protect national security or an equally legitimate goal;
  • strengthen the protections provided by targeting and minimization procedures;
  • disclose additional information about surveillance programs to the public;
  • reduce government secrecy and restrictions on official contact with the media; and
  • enhance protections for national-security whistleblowers.