What is the Snowden Treaty, and why would any state sign it?

25 Sep 2015

At a meeting in New York, journalists and activists from around the world gathered to discuss the creation of a new treaty, that would protect individual privacy, shield surveillance and defend whistleblowers.

Dubbed the Snowden Treaty, it calls on signatories to end mass surveillance, and “consider data protection and the right to privacy in all future programmes and policies”.

It comes after two-and-a-half-years of leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose revelations have included the extreme lengths both the US and UK surveillance divisions (NSA and GCHQ respectively) will go to in order to consume as much data from citizens all over the world as possible.

No longer a conspiracy

Now living in Russia, unable to return to the US unless he wants to spend the rest of his life in prison, Snowden spoke at the New York summit via video link.

He claimed the work done by himself and the journalists he worked with – Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill originally – had helped change public discourse on a very important issue.

“We can discuss things now that five years back would have gotten you labelled as a conspiracy theorist,” he said.

That discussion has moved on to an early draft of a treaty, an idea from David Miranda, the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was detained and interrogated under the UK Terrorism Act at Heathrow during the weeks in which Snowden’s leaks were starting to flood global news cycles.

A political mess

Since those early days, many political fallouts have followed. In Germany, its close ties to the GCHQ caused uproar in the public sphere, with the UK’s expertise in surveillance also catching many people unawares.

There is the likes of PRISM, which saw major IT corporations handing over user data to the US, a combined NSA/GCHQ approach to hack antivirus software; XKEYSCORE allowing spies to tap Skype calls and the BND and NSA colluding.

We’ve seen the US senate vote to reign in surveillance, something easily bypassed soon after, closely followed by news that the UK government buried advice on an international treaty to help do away with all this shadiness.

There’s the Five Eyes cabal, undersea cable tapping and countless claims that this is all in the name of protection. We could go on.

Enough is enough

However, those behind the Snowden Treaty, which you can read the draft of here, want to fight back.

“Signatories will be required to establish independent national supervision to ensure public transparency and accountability in their surveillance-related activities,” reads the draft.

“They will also commit to undertaking comprehensive reviews of existing surveillance practices every 5 years, with their results made public.

“The Snowden Treaty responds to a real demand at the international level, as well as among the global public, for action to combat the threats to the right to privacy, and other related rights, posed by the mass surveillance of digital communications by states.”

Why will states support this?

The obvious question, though, is why? Why would any state that is readily partaking in the very projects this treaty wishes to do away with choose to stop?

Now a few years down the line, the news cycle is no longer relating to the scope and power of state surveillance, but the tools used. The broad, incomprehensible reality has been lost a little.

What we now know is that pretty much everything we do digitally makes its way to the US and UK surveillance bodies at some stage. Or, at the very least, they can access it if and when they like.

Safe Harbour, although under extreme attack in the European Court of Justice, still, right now, allows for the free flow of personal data from Europe into a US system quite obvious in its underhandedness.

We need whistleblowers

We don’t yet know the full strength of other surveillance divisions around the world, and it looks like we will need to rely on whistleblowers like Snowden to let us know.

That means, surely, states protective of their information gathering will refuse to get involved in something to protect those that can undermine their activities.

And finally, in attributing Snowden’s name to it, is it in any way conceivable that the US will fall in line?

No, not a chance.

A wave of public opinion

What’s more likely though, and perhaps as impressive, is it will combine many citizens from around the world – a growing privacy movement that may, one day, alter things – behind already well-supported figures like Greenwald, Poitras, Miranda, Snowden, Kim Dot Com, Jeremy Scahill, Naom Chomsky and Jacob Applebaum.

Maybe it’s a numbers game, with this a way to join the dots and establish a community under one, significant, umbrella.

If that is the end result then it would be an incredible success for those behind it.

Main image via Thierry Ehrmann on Flickr

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic