Amnesty International

Amnesty International was founded in 1961 with the goal of defending individual freedom of expression. As the debate over liberty versus security has unfurled, particularly in the shadow of the global War on Terror, Amnesty International has become an outspoken critic of expanded governmental surveillance and the dearth of regulation of the technology that facilitates it. Amnesty International continues to work to protect individuals by publicizing specific cases of state surveillance, harassment, and severe punishment of individuals for their online activity, but today, it also focuses on systemic issues stemming from electronic monitoring and electronic data collection. This has manifested in three significant ways. First, following Edward Snowden’s revelations about governments’ mass surveillance and data collection, Amnesty International has brought legal challenges against the surveillance programs of the United States and the United Kingdom. Second, Amnesty International cofounded a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that aims to publicize government surveillance strategies and pressure states to place restrictions on the transfer of surveillance technologies. Finally, it has attempted to directly enhance privacy and limit surveillance by disseminating technology that blocks government electronic monitoring capacity. This entry focuses on Amnesty International’s role in protecting civil liberties, regulating the trade in surveillance technology, and mounting legal challenges against government surveillance systems.

Protecting Civil Liberties

The case of Snowden and the revelations of extensive use of mass surveillance technologies by government intelligence agencies galvanized the efforts of Amnesty International. While the United States has asserted that Snowden’s exposure of classified information about U.S. security policy is an act of treason, Amnesty International is a consistent advocate of whistle-blower protection and increased governmental transparency regarding the boundaries of data collection and monitoring of citizens. Amnesty International has directed particular criticism at two governments and their intelligence agencies: the United States’ National Security Agency and the United Kingdom’s General Communication Headquarters. Amnesty International has argued for greater oversight of the mass data collection systems revealed by Snowden: the United Kingdom’s Tempora and the United States’ PRISM programs. Amnesty International’s condemnation is based on its contention that these governments are violating their citizens’ rights while also using this technology to spy on NGOs such as Amnesty International.

Regulating the Trade in Surveillance Technology

The Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports (CAUSE) was formed in 2014. Amnesty International, working with a group of NGOs and other human rights actors, founded CAUSE to advocate for the creation of controls on the trade in technology tools used to monitor private communication. Citing the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 and 1976, respectively, Amnesty International argues that there is a recognized right to privacy, and communication surveillance technology sold by private companies enables infringement of this right. It further claims that when this technology is sold to governments that engage in widespread human rights abuse, such as Libya, Syria, and Iran, it facilitates further abuses of human rights, such as unlawful detention or restrictions on assembly.

Amnesty International and other members of CAUSE drafted an open letter to the members of the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies. In its 2014 letter, it urges the 41 members of the agreement to limit the export of surveillance technology to ensure that it is not used by recipient states to advance repressive practices. While recognizing steps taken in 2013 to regulate dual-use technologies, it condemns the absence of export controls on evolving surveillance tools, such as enhanced voice recognition technologies. Amnesty International and other members of CAUSE advocate for greater participation of nonstate actors in discussions of technology regulation, more consideration of international standards to regulate the trade of surveillance technologies, and greater state-level transparency surrounding export practices.

Direct Challenges to Government Surveillance

Amnesty International has also mounted legal challenges to government surveillance systems. In Clapper v. Amnesty International USA (2013), Amnesty contested the legality of the United States’ practice of warrantless surveillance as protected by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008. The case was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court on the basis that Amnesty International did not have standing in the case because it could not prove direct injury resulting from the surveillance program. In 2013, Amnesty International, as a part of a coalition of NGOs, also brought a complaint to the United Kingdom’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal, in which it argued that the procedures used by the United Kingdom’s intelligence agencies authorizing mass surveillance lack strict boundaries, transparency, and oversight. The U.K. court accepted the government’s claims that its practices conform to domestic human rights law but cannot be made public due to national security implications. Amnesty International subsequently submitted its case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Kali Wright-Smith

See also Civil Liberties ; Freedom of Expression ; Global Surveillance ; National Security Agency Leaks ; Privacy, Right to ; Surveillance Deterrence

Further Readings

Amnesty International. “Big Brother Knows Best” (September 2, 2014). (Accessed December 2014).

Amnesty International. “UK Court Decision on Government Mass Surveillance: ‘Trust Us’ Isn’t Enough” (December 5, 2014). (Accessed January 2015).

Bennett, Colin J. The Privacy Advocates: Resisting the Spread of Surveillance. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.

Clapper v. Amnesty International USA, 568 U.S.___ (2013).

Dizard, Wilson. “Rights Groups Release Software to Detect Government Spyware.” Al Jazeera (November 20, 2014). (Accessed December 2014).

Reporters Without Borders. “New Global Coalition Urges Governments to Keep Surveillance Technologies in Check” (April 4, 2014).,46086.html (Accessed December 2014).

Reporters Without Borders. “An Open Letter to the Members of the Wassenaar Agreement” (December 2, 2014).,47316.html (Accessed January 2015).