More transparency and targeting needed in digital surveillance

16 Apr 2015

Pictured are Dara Murphy, TD, Minister for Data Protection, with Elizabeth Knight of Open Rights Group UK and Antoin O'Lachtnain, Director, Digital Rights Ireland. Picture: Jason Clarke Photography.

Human rights expert Elizabeth Knight from the UK-based Open Rights Group wants more transparency in the area of mass digital surveillance.

When you think of human rights violations, political prisoners and atrocities of war might spring immediately to mind. But could human rights also be compromised right under our noses when we send an email or post a message to social media?

The inaugural Digital Rights Europe 2015 conference, which was held in Dublin yesterday (15 April), heard about legal cases that challenge mass digital surveillance on human-rights grounds, and how the legal framework in the UK for keeping such surveillance in check needs to be changed.

The conference, organised by Digital Rights Ireland, put the focus on issues around digital privacy, digital security and data protection in Europe. Elizabeth Knight, director of the UK-based Open Rights Group, spoke about the extent and lawfulness of mass surveillance at government level.

“When the internet was designed, nobody really had this [surveillance] in mind, they were just concerned with having a means to communicate,” she tells “Since then the surveillance that is taking place by government agencies has become clear. Particularly the Snowden leaks have been instrumental in revealing the extent of it, and that has really revealed that our legal frameworks are completely inadequate.”

Targeting transparency

ORG, a campaigning organisation that promotes digital rights with a specific focus on privacy and freedom of expression, is looking not to stop surveillance, but to make it more targeted and in line with the human rights that protect us from unnecessary and unreasonable government intrusion, explains Knight.

The law that governs digital surveillance in the UK, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA, is particularly in its sights. “The main problem we have with it is that it allows indiscriminate or mass surveillance of external communications,” she explains.

Broad warrants can enable the interception of all digital communications passing along a cable between the UK and other countries, and this is a serious issue, according to Knight. “We don’t think that puts sufficient limits on the government’s discretion,” she says. “And what we are looking for is not an end to surveillance, it is targeted surveillance.”

ORG is guided by a number of key principles, including no surveillance without suspicion, transparent laws, the need for judicial rather than political authorisation, effective democratic oversight, and the right to appeal decisions, ultimately leading to a more secure web for everyone.


The digital rights group is currently involved in legal cases in the European Court of Human Rights, including Privacy not Prism and proceedings against the DRIPA (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act), and the hope is to set precedents at a European level, notes Knight.

“We are not expecting a knockout blow, but a cat-and-mouse game,” she says. “It is likely that there will be more challenges and that they will gradually limit the room for manoeuvre.”

New tech adoption, new issues

As technology develops and is adopted, it will open up new avenues for surveillance and invasion of privacy, as demonstrated when a camera-bearing drone was flown at the conference during a talk on the privacy issues that such technology opens up.

Drones can offer lifelines in situations such as mountain and sea rescue, and they can play important roles in agriculture and scientific research, but they also raise concerns over data protection and privacy.

However, the regulation of drones also needs to be carefully managed, notes Knight, because going down the route of registering devices and tracking data location could itself open up difficulties around data retention. “We need to be careful that people’s rights to protection of personal data are taken into account,” she says.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication