Actually, Most Countries Are Increasingly Spying on Their Citizens, the UN Says

The NSA news is scary, but the U.S. is far from alone in the extent to which it monitors communications within its borders, a new report found.
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A man stands on an escalator at the financial district of Pudong in Shanghai May 6, 2011. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The revelation that the National Security Agency seems to be collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers is shocking, but it's actually part of a growing trend in which governments worldwide are relying on widespread, unrestricted surveillance in the name of national security.

A report released this week by the UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression found that as communications systems have advanced, nations all over the world are increasingly logging and monitoring communications data, many even without just cause:

"Changes in technology have been paralleled by changes in attitudes towards communications surveillance. When the practice of official wiretapping first commenced in the United States of America, it was conducted on a restricted basis, and was only reluctantly sanctioned by the courts. Over time, however, States have expanded their powers to conduct surveillance, lowering the threshold and increasing the justifications for such surveillance."

In the worst cases, countries are actually listening in on their own citizens, remotely hacking into their computers and turning on Web cameras, or logging in and intercepting Skype calls.

Some activists in Bahrain and elsewhere, for example, have been targeted through phishing emails, sent by regimes, which pack a software that allows access to emails, online chats, and any documents saved on the computer when an email attachment is opened.

Of course, that's far more invasive than what the NSA is doing. According to news reports, the agency used a section of the Patriot Act in order to compel Verizon to provide daily information about "all call detail records ... created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad; or wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."

With that, the NSA can only know who you called, for how long, and possibly where your cell phone was at the time of the call. (Which, of course, is already plenty jarring.) But countless other Western nations engage in similar types of low-level spying, the UN found. The NSA's style of "mandatory data retention" is a major way in which states are increasingly keeping track of online and phone conversations, including by forcing third-party private sector companies to store information they wouldn't normally collect.

"Today's news shows that massive surveillance can no longer be said to be the realm of authoritarian regimes, and is part of an alarming trend worldwide," wrote the group Privacy International, a group that supports limits on surveillance, on their blog today.

To name just one example, Google receives thousands of requests each year from governments seeking everything from "names and IPs used to create accounts, to time stamps for when Gmail accounts were logged in and out of."

These types of inquiries have doubled over the course of three years, from 12,539 in 2009 to 21,389 in 2012. In the UK, government authorities can "self-authorize" their own information requests, so there are 500,000 of these kinds of probes each year, the UN report notes. The world's five biggest Internet companies recently wrote to Britain's home secretary to oppose the so-called "snooper's charter," which would require foreign companies to monitor web communications there.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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