America has developed a surveillance problem, hiding behind a facade of security. Britain has been down this road before, the average citizen in London is photographed 300 times per day by government, which has done nothing to reduce crime.

Thus it makes sense that a law academic from the University of East Anglia (UEA) has advice for how to repair the trust of people and foreign governments who feel violated by the administration's tactics.

The American public does not trust the federal government at a level not seen since the 1960s and early 1970s. To rebuild trust that government is for the people, and not a shadowy force creating crime to monitor, Dr. Paul Bernal recommends what seems obvious to people not rationalizing breaches of trust; surveillance minimization, where surveillance is the exception, not the rule.

Speaking at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference in Brussels, Bernal's advice is timely, following on the heels of the announcement last week by American President Barack Obama that he would curb the use of bulk data collected by U.S. intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency (NSA), which almost no one believed. His speech followed widespread anger after leaks revealed the full extent of US surveillance operations, including the mass collection of electronic data from communications of private individuals and spying on foreign leaders, and most Americans refuse to accept he had no knowledge of it.


"Surveillance minimization is a simple concept and uses one of the overriding principles of data protection, the idea of data minimization, and applies it to communications surveillance," said Bernal. "The potential impact upon individuals from surveillance by commercial organizations can be significant, and as the NSA's PRISM program in particular demonstrated there are inextricable links between the commercial and the governmental.

"Surveillance minimization requires surveillance to be targeted rather than universal, controlled and warranted at the point of data gathering rather than of data access, and performed for the minimum necessary time on the minimum necessary people. Surveillance minimization could play a part in rebuilding the trust that is vital in this field - and in the construction of a more 'privacy-friendly' Internet - one where surveillance is the exception, not the rule."

The debate and discussion around the issue has been intentionally miscast and the common understanding - that there is a balance to be found between the individual right to privacy and the collective right to security - significantly misses the point. 

"Communications surveillance, and Internet surveillance in particular, has become a topic of much discussion in recent years," Bernal said. "The information released, revealing at least some of the true extent and nature of communications surveillance being carried out by the NSA and others, has come as a surprise to many and contributed to an atmosphere of confusion and of distrust in a field where trust is of the utmost importance.

"Surveillance impacts upon more than just individual privacy, but upon a wide range of human rights, from freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly to protection from discrimination. The impact is not just on individuals but on communities and other groups, and casting the debate as one of individual versus collective rights is misleading, inappropriately downplaying the significance of the impact of surveillance. The nature of this impact needs to be understood better if a more appropriate balance is to be found between people's rights and the duties of states to provide security for their citizens. Consequently, a new understanding of the balance between the relevant competing rights, needs and imperatives has to be established."