Data Privacy Brasil participates in OECD event on the impact of national and global security measures on civic space

Publicado em setembro 15, 2021

On July 15, 2021, Data Privacy Brasil Research took part in the webinar “The impact of national and global security measures on civic spacesecurity measures on civic space” (“the impact […]

On July 15, 2021, Data Privacy Brasil Research took part in the webinar “The impact of national and global security measures on civic spacesecurity measures on civic space” (“the impact of national and global”), an event promoted by the Civil Society Observatory of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD Observatory of Civic Space). Mediated by Elsa Pilichowski (Director of Public Governance, OECD), the debate featured presentations by Lysa John, (General Secretary of CIVICUS), Martin Abregu (Vice President of International Programs at the Ford Foundation), Clément Nyaletsossi Voule (Special Rapporteur for United Nations on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association), Agnès Callamard (Secretary General of Amnesty International), Matthew Mayer (Government of Canada), David Lewis (Executive Secretary of the Financial Action Task Force, FAFT – FATF), Jean Michel-Mis (Deputy, National Assembly of France) and Rafael Zanatta (Director, Data Privacy Brazil Research).

First of all, Elsa Pilichowski (OECD) highlighted the popularization of exceptional measures by the government due to the fight against COVID-19. In her speech, the director raised concerns about how measures to combat terrorism could have corrosive impacts on human rights and bring restrictions to civil society, such as impacts on freedom of expression and religion. The risk would be underpinned by public safety concerns being used as a pretext for such violations and restrictions, enabling authoritarian tendencies. Therefore, in her view, it is necessary to find a balance between responding to threats and preserving fundamental rights and freedoms, which realizes benefits of public participation and inclusive governments: referring to the example of Canada and its public consultation on measures to combat terrorism, the director pointed out that such measures bring more transparency and avoid polarization.

Lysa John (CIVICUS) then noted that civic space is being increasingly restricted around the world. In her perspective, several countries started from the premise of confronting Covid to pass legislation and adopt measures restricting the right of assembly and, consequently, the freedom of association and expression. That is, several countries took the opportunity of the pandemic context and used the fight against the disease as a pretext to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms. To end her speech, she warned that the OECD and its member countries have a critical role to play in solving these problems. 

Still keeping a critical tone at the table, Martin Abregu (Ford Foundation) highlighted that there are four main issues that urgently need to be addressed in the fight against terrorism: 1) how the concepts of “threats” and “terrorism” are defined in the context of public security; 2) how these themes are confronted; 3) how threats to security and terrorism are used as justification for adopting authoritarian measures and 4) how these practices are replicated in other spheres, such as migration.

Along the same lines, Clement Voule (UN) stated that the response of governments to Covid accelerated and aggravated the problems that already existed in the civic space, in a way that civil society became a target of persecution under the pretext of fighting the disease. Thus, there would be a global trend to gradually restrict the right of assembly. To address such a violation, he underscored the importance of international mobilization and funding to rebuild democracies around the world. 

In turn, Agnès Callamard (Amnesty International) addressed the phenomenon of securitization and the risk of emergency measures becoming increasingly common in order to be incorporated into the legislation of countries. In addition, her speech had discrimination as its keynote. In this sense, she recalled that the various effects of the pandemic, as well as the measures to restrict rights, do not affect all groups equally: naturally, the most vulnerable groups such as immigrants are the most affected by the repressive force of the State. Thus, she emphasized that the securitization of society reached everyone, but some more than others. 

Also according to the speaker, another dimension of discrimination involves technology. Facial recognition, biometric and monitoring technologies reach those groups that are traditionally marginalized and, consequently, more vulnerable. These people are already the target of discrimination in society. Technology, therefore, would only aggravate this scenario in which the rampant adoption of surveillance technologies challenges the right to privacy and freedom of expression.

On the other hand, Matthew Mayer, representative of the Canadian government, spoke from another perspective and brought examples that allowed Canada to achieve better results. Mayer drew attention to the government’s openness in relation to the 2015 Anti-terrorism Act, when the government was willing to receive feedback from the Canadian citizens. As a result of public reaction to the statute, the government held several consultations with experts, civil society and the general public. The findings indicated that Canadians wanted to increase the inspection of law enforcement bodies, increasing mechanisms of transparency and accountability. Mayer noted that the Canadian government, which assessed the experience of the consultation as positive, is committed to these continuous improvement efforts.

Still in the context of consultations, Mayer brought a second practical example involving the terminology used to deal with threats to public security and terrorism. At first, the Canadian government had used terminology that is considered offensive to some groups, for associating the practice of acts of violence and terrorism with certain ethnic and religious groups. The popular participation was instrumental in re-evaluating the change in terminology, as well as demonstrating that Canadians want to participate in decision-making processes. After acknowledging past mistakes and lessons for the future, Mayer noted that the government strives to be as inclusive as possible and that public trust is fundamental for the Canadian State, since citizens’ involvement in policy making is the path for a greater degree of transparency and inclusion. 

Also reflecting on responsibilities, David Lewis (FAFT-GAFI) acknowledged being part of the problem and commented that he considered himself the “villain” of the panel, as a representative of an entity dedicated to combating terrorism that has already reproduced the issues addressed in the discussion. However, Lewis said the FATF is determined to reverse that scenario. To this end, the intergovernmental body must commit to working together with civil society in order to mitigate unwanted consequences in the fight against terrorism. One of them, for example, would be the persecution of non-profit organizations, which for many years were the target of the FAFT. 

In turn, the French deputy Jean Michel-Mis took up the speech of Agnès Callamard about securitization. The deputy addressed tensions between security and freedom agendas, as well as exceptional legislation, a context in which it highlighted the importance of proportionality in the measures employed. In addition, he pointed out issues in the use of technologies in the context of law enforcement, such as facial recognition systems. Such worries include massive surveillance and possibilities of automatic control, as well as little understanding of the functioning of algorithms.

Still commenting on technological development in public security, Michel-Mis also showed concerns regarding artificial intelligence and freedom. In his view, the proper use of this technology requires proportionality and transparency assessments, a sine qua non of trust in these instruments. In addition, the deputy defended that technology must be inclusive in order to enable direct democratic control by citizens.

Lastly, Rafael Zanatta (DPBR) brought a critical analysis of the fight against terrorism in the specific context of Latin America, whose history is marked by a dictatorial past. After citing the consequences of this past, he indicated regional trends in the fight against terrorism that affect civic space, in addition to presenting civil society and OECD’s perspectives on the subject. 

His first warning was that, in the Latin American context, “terrorists” are the opponents of the government – traditionally, subversive citizens of the left. Moreover, Latin American countries tend to consider threats to be internal rather than external, and thus direct public security efforts to their own citizens. This has proved even more problematic in the context of the pandemic, where the adoption of surveillance technologies and the increased collection of personal data by the government is still a concern in terms of harassment of activists and monitoring of opponents.

Besides, Zanatta also pointed to three regional tendencies in combating terrorism that deserve attention. The first is the confusion of cybersecurity and military competences, leading to a worrying state of militarization of the field of personal data protection, misconceptions and abuse of power. 

Second, there is also a tendency to frame financial crimes and ransomware attacks as terrorist activities. One of the possible consequences of the pressure exerted for years by traditional financial institutions to reform existing laws is an increase in criminalization that can also impact civil liberties. In this scenario, there are significant risks to journalism and data activism, which again raises concerns about the expansion of the concept of terrorism.

The third trend involves a narrative shift about what constitutes “extreme violence” conduct in the online environment. In Colombia, for example, content produced by civil entities and activists in recent protests has been labeled “incitement to violence”, a subversion of logic by the government. In these cases, he warned that intermediaries cannot give in to these attempts, which can amplify the massive removal of legitimate discursive content by civil society. 

Finally, the director of Data Privacy Brasil Research stressed the position of the OECD regarding the importance of transparency in addressing violent and extremist content. He also noted the common concern among civil society entities about broad and undefined definitions of “terrorism” and “extreme violence”, since the lack of clear definitions of these terms are possible instruments of harassment and threats by authoritarian governments.

By Thaís Aguiar and Hana Mesquita

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