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An important oversight measure that many countries employ is the requiring of annual public reporting of information about the use of electronic surveillance by government departments. These reports typically provide summary details about the number of uses of electronic surveillance, the types of crimes that they are authorized for, their duration and other information.
This is a common feature of wiretap laws in English-speaking countries and many others in Europe. Countries that issue annual reports on the use of surveillance include Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
These countries recognize that it is necessary to allow for people outside governments to know about its uses to limit abuses. They are widely used in many countries by the parliaments for oversight and also by journalists, NGOs and others to examine the activities of law enforcement. The reports have shown an increase in the use of surveillance in many countries including the US and the United Kingdom while others such as Canada have remained steady.
These laws are designed to ensure that legitimate and normal activities in a democracy such as journalism, civic protests, trade union organizing or political opposition are free from being subjected to unwarranted surveillance because they have different interests and goals than those in power. It also ensures that relatively minor crimes, especially those that would not generally involve telecommunications for facilitation, are not used as a pretext to conduct intrusive surveillance for political or other reasons.
However, wiretapping abuses have been revealed in most countries, sometimes occurring on a vast scale involving thousands of illegal taps. The abuses invariably affect anyone “of interest” to a government. Targets include political opponents, student leaders and human rights workers.
This can occur even in the most democratic of countries such as Denmark and Sweden, where it was recently disclosed that intelligence agencies were conducting surveillance of thousands of left-leaning activists for nearly 40 years.
The United Nations commissioner on human rights in 1988 made clear that human rights protections on the secrecy of communications broadly covers all forms of communications: compliance with Article 17 requires that the integrity and confidentiality of correspondence should be guaranteed de jure and de facto; correspondence should be delivered to the addressee without interception and without being opened or otherwise read; surveillance, whether electronic or otherwise, interceptions of telephonic, telegraphic and other forms of communication, wire-tapping and recording of conversations should be prohibited.
The need for greater protection is recognized by many democratic countries around the world. Increasingly new standards, technologies and new policies are complicating the situation.
In the past 15 years, the US government has led a worldwide effort to limit individual privacy and enhance the capability of its police and intelligence services to eavesdrop on personal conversations. This campaign had two strategies. The first is to promote laws that make it mandatory for all companies that develop digital telephone switches, cellular and satellite phones and all developing communication technologies to build in surveillance capabilities; the second is to seek limits on the development and dissemination of products, both in hardware and software, that provide encryption, a technique that allows people to scramble their communications and files to prevent others from reading them.
Law enforcement agencies have traditionally worked closely with telecommunications companies to formulate arrangements that would make phone systems “wiretap friendly.” These agreements range from allowing police physical access to telephone exchanges, to installing equipment to automate the interception. Because most telecommunications operators were either monopolies or operated by government telecommunications agencies, this process was generally hidden from public view.
Following deregulation and new entries into telecommunications in the US in the early Nineties, law enforcement agencies, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, began demanding that all current and future telecommunications systems be designed to ensure that they would be able to conduct wiretaps.