A new global initiative aims to accelerate reform of national security organisations

Code red diagrams

By Simon Davies

A four-month consultation begins today to explore options for a major new global initiative to support the fight against unlawful and excessive surveillance by national security organisations.

The initiative was launched only hours after the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to limit the National Security Agency’s ability to conduct covert domestic surveillance operations, including requiring companies to build “back door” access to their technology. The vote, while being unprecedented, will however have only a marginal impact on the NSA’s global operations. The NSA’s principal partner, Britain’s GCHQ, has for example remained completely unaffected by the revelations of the past year.

The reform movement would be more effective with greater resources, detailed tactical information and new opportunities for networking.

The reform project – called “Code Red” – emerged during the preparation of an international report earlier this year on responses to the revelations made by Edward Snowden. The report, “A Crisis of Accountability”, involved authors and survey respondents from 29 countries, and revealed that governments had overwhelmingly failed to take action to deal with the issues raised by the Snowden documents.

However, the report also outlined a rich and often highly effective spectrum of actions by industry and civil society that have helped change public attitudes across the world. Such initiatives as the Thirteen Principles have galvanised campaign groups across the world, while tactically astute legal actions by the likes of Privacy International and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have triggered much-needed heat and light on the activities of security agencies.

The report process also reinforced awareness among participants that the reform movement would be more effective with greater resources, detailed tactical information and new opportunities for networking. Given the complexity and scale of the proposed project, it was felt that full-scale outreach would be necessary before proceeding with a specific structure.

The consultation is being coordinated by the Privacy Surgeon in collaboration with civil society groups.

Regardless of the outcome of the consultation, Code Red will not take on a coordinating role in campaign actions. Instead, its likely objectives will be more toward supporting existing organisations and helping to inspire and inform new initiatives – perhaps somewhere between a resource centre and a strategy think-tank.

The outreach will explore a wide range of options for Code Red, but will initially focus on three core objectives:

The initiative has the potential to catalogue and disseminate a wide spectrum of detailed legal, technical and strategic material

  • The concept of a “clearinghouse” has already received broad support. Such a structure could help not only strengthen communications and awareness among campaigners about current activities, but would also help spread the word about new financial and human resources for technical research, legal challenges etc.
  • A clearinghouse initiative could also help build networks and create links between diverse elements of the reform movement – law, policy, technology and direct action – many of which are currently handicapped by limited communication and liaison
  • The initiative also has the potential to catalogue and disseminate a wide spectrum of detailed legal, technical and strategic material for the benefit of the networks.

Among the questions being explored by the consultation is the extent to which the new initiative should adopt a “hands-on” mandate to organise legal challenges and campaigns, or whether it should be limited to supporting and resourcing existing reform activities.

Another critically important issue for the consultation is whether the new initiative should encourage and directly support the development of more tactically aggressive measures to counteract mass surveillance. There is currently a strong trend among campaign groups to work toward legal reforms, but relatively little focus on direct action and more militant strategy.

Of perhaps even greater weight is the question of whether the new initiative should extend to law enforcement agencies.The operational relationship between security services, law  enforcement agencies and global police organisations such as INTERPOL remains largely unknown and in terms of data policy continues to be largely unaccountable. While important new information has been made public about how security agencies collect and exchange data within their own security community, almost nothing is known about the use of that information or the extent to which it is passed to law enforcement agencies.

Civil society organisations are currently being asked to contribute high-level views that will feed into an options paper to be published in July. This will be followed by a consultation roadshow across several countries during September and October.