european citizens

U.S. Spy Law Authorizes Mass Surveillance of European Citizens: Report

by Ryan Gallagher, Slate.com  |  published on January 11, 2013

Europeans, take note: The U.S. government has granted itself authority to secretly snoop on you.

That’s according to a new report produced for the European Parliament, which has warned that a U.S. spy law renewed late last year authorizes “purely political surveillance on foreigners’ data” if it is stored using U.S. cloud services like those provided by Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

Europeans were previously alarmed by the fact that the PATRIOT Act could be used to obtain data on citizens outside the United States. But this time the focus is a different law—the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Amendments Act—which poses a “much graver risk to EU data sovereignty than other laws hitherto considered by EU policy-makers,” according to the recently published report, Fighting Cyber Crime and Protecting Privacy in the Cloud, produced by the Centre for the Study of Conflicts, Liberty and Security.

The FISA Amendments Act was introduced in 2008, retroactively legalizing a controversial “warrantless wiretapping” program initiated following 9/11 by the Bush administration. Late last month, it was renewed through 2017. During that process, there was heated debate over how it may violate Americans’ privacy. But citizens in foreign jurisdictions have even greater cause for concern, says the report’s co-author, Caspar Bowden, who was formerly chief privacy adviser to Microsoft Europe.

According to Bowden, the 2008 FISA amendment created a power of “mass surveillance” specifically targeted at the data of non-U.S. persons located outside America, which applies to cloud computing. This means that U.S. companies with a presence in the EU can be compelled under a secret surveillance order, issued by a secret court, to hand over data on Europeans. Because non-American citizens outside the United States have been deemed by the court not to fall under the search and seizure protections of the Fourth Amendment, it opens the door to an unprecedented kind of snooping.

“It’s like putting a mind control drug in the water supply, which only affects non-Americans,” says Bowden. The lack of attention European data protection authorities have paid to this provision has been “shocking,” Bowden adds. But with FISA’s renewal and the release of the report, that could be about to change.

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