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Why Human Rights Groups Attracted the NSA's Attention

Why Human Rights Groups Attracted the NSA's Attention
Not content with spying on UNICEF or the World Health Organization, it appears that western intelligence agencies are specifically targeting the communications of human rights groups.
While talking via video link to the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (full video here), Edward Snowden was asked if the NSA or GCHQ were currently spying on groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
“Without question, yes, absolutely,” was his response. “The NSA has in fact specifically targeted the communications of either leaders or staff members in a number of purely civil or human rights organisation of the kind described.”
Although it wasn't directly addressed towards a specific organisation, both Amnesty and HRW published press releases condemning the actions.
“If it's true that the NSA spied on groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, it's outrageous, and indicative of the overreach that US laws allows to security agencies,” said Dinah PoKempner from Human Rights Watch. “Such actions would again show why the US needs to overhaul its system of indiscriminate surveillance.”
Unfortunately, this won't be much of a surprise to Amnesty, who last Decemberraised concerns with the UK government that their communications had been unlawfully accessed by intelligence agencies. In a claim to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the group claimed a breach of the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression, referencing the Human Rights Act of 1998.
But why would the NSA, a government body purportedly gathering intelligence for the sake of national security, be concerned in surveilling human rights groups?
One clear reason is to gain access to communications with sources. Global NGOs have contacts in Libya, Russia, China, and pretty much everywhere else in the world, and being able to read the emails of an NGO source in a country or government of interest could save the hassle of building up your own presence in the area.
This is what seems to have worried Michael Bochenek, the legal and policy director for Amnesty International. “This raises the very real possibility that our communications with confidential sources have been intercepted,” he said.
This approach isn't far fetched either. Al Jazeera—which, last time I checked, is a journalistic entity rather than a terrorist organisation—had its computer systems broken into by the NSA during George Bush's second term in office. The already encrypted information was then passed onto other  departments for analysis, with the NSA saying that Al Jazeera had “high potential as sources of intelligence.” (The US Justice Department was also caught last year spying on the Associated Press.)
Another reason is that the campaigns carried out by human rights groups do pose a threat to the interests of those in power. Amnesty International UK is currentlyhighlighting cases of damage caused by energy corporations, in particular Shell. The organisation refers to documents that “show, in detail, how the UK intervened to support Shell and Rio Tinto in high-profile US human rights court cases, following requests from companies.”
It appears that the UK government feels responsible for ensuring that these companies can carry on business as usual. According to government documents, government agencies tasked with business development “believe that the prosperity and potentially significant commercial considerations," justifying their support of corporations in the court room.
With environmentalists increasingly being viewed as a security threat, and the close relationship between government and private energy sectors, it's plausible that spying on those opposed to abusive industries would be occurring.
If the NSA are willing to break into a media outlet's internal communications for the purposes of gathering intel, or the British government continue to explicitly support third party interests, it would be naive to think they wouldn't deploy similar tactics in order to undermine the work of human rights organisations.
Assuming that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are some of the groups affected by this snooping, who else could be affected? An obvious example is the American Civil Liberties Union, who are heavily involved with all things anti-surveillance, and who count Snowden's lawyer among their staff. Knowing what their next big scoop might be, who a whistleblower in the waiting is, or even their plans to generate support for initiatives such as The Day We Fight Back would all be valuable to an intelligence agency that just wants to keep on spying.  @josephcox
TOPICS: state of surveillanceprivacysurveillancensaSnowdenpowerhuman rightsNGOs


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