OTI Condemns Plan to Let U.K. Government Use American Companies for Internet Wiretapping

Press Release
Feb. 5, 2016

Yesterday, the Washington Post broke the story on secret negotiations between the United States and the United Kingdom on an agreement that would allow the U.K. government to directly request that American Internet companies hand over data and wiretap U.K. customers whose communications are stored in or transmitted through facilities in the U.S.  

The following statement is from Kevin Bankston, the Director of New America’s Open Technology Institute.

“The idea that the U.S. government would allow wiretapping inside the United States by a foreign country’s national security authorities, under legal standards that are far lower than what is required of our own police, is a horrible betrayal of our constitutional principles. I can only expect that our founders, who led a revolution against the British and wrote the Constitution that this deal disregards, are rolling in their graves. 

“We are certainly willing to discuss reasonable reforms to the outdated “Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty” (MLAT) system that provides for foreign criminal investigators that need access to records and communications stored in the US, especially if by doing so we can ensure that human rights are respected in the process. Indeed, it may be that such reform is necessary to head off much worse results for Internet freedom, in the form of other countries hungry for data choosing to demand that data be locally stored, or demand that companies not encrypt their data so it can be intercepted locally, or throw company representatives in jail for not complying with their extraterritorial demands for data. That’s why we’ve been consulting with other privacy organizations, human rights groups, academic experts and Internet companies on what a reasonable solution to this problem would look like. But this is not even close to a reasonable solution.

“This deal as reported would not require the U.K. to heighten its standards to meet ours in the U.S., or even to meet the basic requirements of human rights law. This deal would also go far beyond allowing access to stored data in criminal investigations, which is what the current system allows. Instead, it would allow access in national security investigations—where standards and oversight are even less stringent, and the chance of abuse is higher—and would even allow wiretapping, which under U.S. law is the single most privacy-invasive thing the government can do and is normally subject to the strongest possible constitutional protections. This proposal is simply beyond the pale, and would set a dangerous precedent that will soon have other foreign countries demanding a similar right to wiretap in the U.S. We call on lawmakers who care about privacy—both from the left and the right—to tell the Obama Administration that they will not stand for it.”