Human Rights Activists Are Asking 8 Countries How Much They Spy on Each Other's Citizens

Are international surveillance agreements just a way to avoid local anti-spying laws?

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Jun 13 2017, 4:04pm

Image: Pix One/Shutterstock

How much is your government spying on people? Answering that question is tricky, especially because governments often might turn to other nations' intel agencies to help get bypass their own laws limiting spying at home. But a coalition of eight civil liberties groups is teaming up to try and find out just how much "covert cooperation" is going on between eight of the world's major governments.

The International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO), which is comprised of organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the US, and similar organizations in the UK, Canada, Ireland, Hungary, Russia, Argentina, and South Africa, announced the transparency initiative on Tuesday.

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Each participating organization filed freedom-of-information requests with its respective government, asking them to reveal any information-sharing agreements with other countries, according to the press release. As INCLO gets information from the governments about their spying practices, it will post them on its website (already, it has posted its request documents). The goal is to find out whether these agreements are just ways for countries to help each other spy and skirt local regulations. INCLO is also further encouraging other groups to join with it in filing information requests.

"Public pushback has achieved significant progress in restoring transparency and re-establishing privacy norms in domestic contexts," the ACLU wrote in a statement. "However, information-sharing agreements remain a critical blind spot, potentially providing intelligence agencies a backdoor to evade legal safeguards and retain surveillance data. Today's initiative is the first step to uncovering the extent of this threat."

Read more: How the US and Its Spy Allies Scan the World for Hackable Servers

One of the most well-known intelligence sharing agreements is the so-called Five Eyes, a pact between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. For years, critics have accused these countries of using the agreement to spy on each other's citizens. For example, critics fear that the agreement allows American intelligence agencies such as the NSA, which are prohibited to spy on Americans, to get Americans' surveillance data from the British GCHQ, and vice-versa.

"While there are often rules purporting to protect the privacy and civil liberties of their own citizens, the rules permitting cooperation between intelligence agencies are less clear or contain loopholes that sidestep domestic legal constraints," reads the project's website.

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