The 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden of the scope and magnitude of electronic surveillance programs run by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and some of its partners, chief among them the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), have provoked intense and ongoing public debate regarding the proper limits of such intelligence activities. Privacy activists decry such programs, especially those involving the mass collection of the data or communications of ordinary individuals across the globe, arguing that they create an inhibiting surveillance climate that diminishes basic freedoms, while government officials justify them as being necessary for the prevention of terrorism.
The purpose of this article, however, is not to assess the general propriety or usefulness of surveillance programs or their compliance with relevant domestic law. I do not want to argue that electronic surveillance programs, whether targeted or done on a mass scale, are per se illegal, ineffective or unjustifiable. Rather, what I want to look at is how the legality of such programs would be debated and assessed within the framework of international human rights law, and specifically under the major human rights treaties to which the ‘Five Eyes’ and other states with sophisticated technological capabilities are parties.
In the wake of the UN General Assembly's 2013 resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age, it can be expected that electronic surveillance and related activities will remain on the agenda of UN bodies for years to come, especially since the political relevance of the topic shows no signs of abating. Similarly, cases challenging surveillance on human rights grounds are already pending before domestic and international courts. The discussion has just started, and it will continue at least partly in human rights terms, focusing on the rights and interests of the affected individuals, rather than solely on the interests and sovereignty of states.
The primary purpose of this article is to advance this conversation by looking at one specific, threshold issue: whether human rights treaties such as the ICCPR and the ECHR even apply to foreign surveillance. The article will show that while there is much uncertainty in how the existing case law on the jurisdictional threshold issues might apply to foreign surveillance, this uncertainty should not be overestimated – even if it can and is being exploited. The only truly coherent approach to the threshold question of applicability, I will argue, is that human rights treaties should apply to virtually all foreign surveillance activities. That the treaties apply to such activities, however, does not mean that they are necessarily unlawful. Rather, the lawfulness of a given foreign surveillance program is subject to a fact-specific examination on the merits of its compliance with the right to privacy, and in that, I submit, foreign surveillance activities are no different from purely domestic ones.