Privacy Commissioners Struggle to Confront Surveillance Issues at Annual Conference

The 35th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners wraps up today in Warsaw, Poland. The conference has become an important annual event, facilitating greater global cooperation on privacy and providing the commissioners with a venue to speak out on key privacy issues. This year, the commissioners issued one declaration (on the “appification” of society) and nine resolutions. The resolutions cover a wide range of issues including profiling, international enforcement, anchoring privacy in international law, and web tracking.

Yet despite the enormous public attention to surveillance issues over the past few months, there are no specific resolutions on the issue. In fact, surveillance is only mentioned once, in a resolution on openness of personal data practices which urges organizations to be more open about their practices and adds that governments should do the same. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission abstained from voting on the resolution due to the reference to governments. The U.S. may have been particularly uncomfortable with the final paragraph in the explanatory note:

Recent revelations about government surveillance programs have prompted calls for greater openness with respect to the scope of these programs, increased oversight and accountability of these programs and more transparency from the private sector organisations that are required to provide personal data to governments. The revelations have also occasioned debate about the appropriate level of transparency associated with such programs in light of relevant national security, public safety and public policy considerations.

The abstention highlights the challenge global privacy commissioners face in finding consensus on surveillance concerns. Interestingly, while the commissioners struggled to tackle the surveillance issue, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff had no hesitation in addressing the issue directly at the United Nations, where she argued:

In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy. In the absence of the respect for sovereignty, there is no basis for the relationship among nations.

The strong speech recognized that there is a need to speak out loudly on surveillance. It is discouraging that the world’s privacy and data protection commissioners seemed to struggle to do so and faced U.S. opposition to the only reference to the issue.


  1. David Crosswell says:

    The elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.
    Obviously we need more competent people, with substance, in the room.

  2. Rousseff is absolutely correct
    Rousseff is absolutely correct. The inevitable consequence of the current level & trajectory of surveillance is not just “an erosion of democracy”, it is to become, as Sheldon Wolin defined, a form of managed democracy and ultimately inverted totalitarianism. Free thought, free speech, free assembly, public process will be suppressed or self-censored. Investigative journalism will become impossible. Such will be the case within nations like ours. Internationally, the world will become ever increasingly anarchic, where brute military and economic power will systemically, overtly and covertly undermine any threat to the narrow interests that run the powerful states.

    The only path I can see out of this mess requires (but obviously is not limited to) the mass normalization of hardened, end-to-end cryptography of data, communications and systems. I say “normalization” because unless its use is widespread within civil society, individual use will increasingly be a “probable grounds” flag for attracting increased surveillance attention. There was a time when noble projects like FreeNet ( held the once idealized promise of helping political justice in places like China. Now there is growing good reason to see its need here.

    A deep part of the problem is that the growing surveillance state is not just an alignment of political and bureaucratic self-interest, more important is that there is massive private profit to be made servicing such a state. On the other hand, ironically, corporations interested in protecting commercial confidentiality could play a leading role in challenging mass surveillance. Furthermore, specific companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter etc could collectively use their own power to truly challenge their own government, attacking with legal, technological and public relations fronts. I believe that users would reward them. We have already seen Google take such a stand against China.

    Unfortunately, I doubt any such challenges will happen in the Anglo-American sphere. Perhaps in parts of Europe and more likely in South America.

    I truly fear that history will judge the post 9/11 era as a dystopic turning point in the course of civilization. The stakes are that great.

  3. The quiet takeover of democracy through total surveillance, fear-induced passivity and self-submission
    Caspar Bowden, who between 2002 and 2011 was in charge of the privacy policy for 40 countries in which Microsoft operated – but not the US – told a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland,…
    …the extent of the NSA’s surveillance efforts – where it shares and gathers intelligence with the UK’s GCHQ and intelligence agencies in Canada, New Zealand and Australia – was undermining democracy…
    … “The public now has to think about the fact that anybody in public life, or person in a position of influence in government, business or bureaucracy, now is thinking about what the NSA knows about them. So how can we trust that the decisions that they make are objective and that they aren’t changing the decisions that they make to protect their career? That strikes at any system of representative government.” The wording of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) under which the NSA gathers intelligence means that “there’s no protection if you’re not an American”, said Bowden. “We’re living through a transformation in surveillance power that’s never been seen before on earth. And we don’t know what type of government or leader will come to power next and exploit it. It could be the next president. It could be this one.”

    Why are so many otherwise thoughtful and informed people so silent about this? Why is so much of the media and the intellectual community so silent?

    I am not a person of power or influence but I know that I now always think twice, and self-sensor everything I do online that is remotely political or otherwise mainstream. Are others doing this too?

    74 years ago the Anglo-American allies came together to destroy fascism that threatened our freedom, democracy and human rights. Now narrow political, private and institutional self-interests are engineering the same from within.

    Michael, I urge you to champion this issue… you have the skills, enormous credibility, a legitimate platform, the right connections, and a global audience. I cannot overstate the importance and cannot imagine anything more important.

  4. Here is Bowden’s very compelling assessment…

    > Caspar Bowden, Independent researcher, ex-Chief Privacy Adviser of Microsoft, author of the Policy Department note commissioned by the LIBE Committee on the US surveillance programmes and their impact on EU citizens’ privacy. Courtesy: European Parliament AV Service.

    > Bowden’s report to the EU

    > Bowden’s talk and Q&A