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Assange’s Arrest And The ‘US Injustice’: 2019 Feels Like 1984

Imaan Mazari in this article argues that with Julian Assange’s arrest, “UK and US’ reputation as human rights defenders has come crumbling down”. She believes that this precedent of persecuting a whistle-blower, if set, will be used by quasi-democracies like Pakistan and others in a more brutal manner.

The images of Assange being dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy by British police ought to be permanently etched in our collective conscience. The UK government, acting on behalf of the US, stated that Assange is “accused in the United States of America of computer related offenses”. Ironic considering that the US and UK have legitimized their own computer related offenses against not only their own citizens but citizens of third States.

With one arrest, what little was left of the UK and US’ reputation as human rights defenders has come crumbling down. In the same vein, so too shattered the credibility of several publications (and “journalists”), who rushed to attack Assange, instead of defending for themselves the space and freedom he continues to fight for today. The hypocrisy of certain publications and States on human rights thus stands exposed yet again.

Instead of writing about what Assange achieved for citizens the world over, it is the objective of this piece to highlight the issues that remain – issues that require our renewed resistance. It merits mention here that there is a case currently ongoing before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) concerning alleged Computer Network Exploitation (CNE), more colloquially known as “hacking”, by the UK Government.

This case relates to government hacking techniques that we are aware of (and that the UK Government has, at least partially, legalized – for itself – through legislation). On-going or disposed of cases are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to violations of our privacy: the scale at which governments are spying on us is unimaginable.

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The level of pervasiveness is aptly illustrated through the FBI hacking case, where the FBI used a hacking technique known as “network investigative technique” (NIT) on several computers all over the world to identify visitors to the website Playpen, a child pornography website. Playpen was being accessed by people through the Tor network, known to protect the anonymity of those browsing the Internet. A single FBI warrant allowed the Bureau to hack into more than 87,000 computers across 120 countries.

This was one example we know of – do we even want to begin to imagine the pervasiveness of this type of surveillance and monitoring? The microphones and cameras on our phones can be activated, at any given time, without our consent; our location can be traced; and any and all content from our phones (even our most personal messages, photos and videos) can be retrieved – all without us even knowing that this is happening. This writer uses the words “can be” but we know (thanks in large part to Assange and others like him) that this is our reality.

Maybe one expects (but cannot justify) this level of intrusive surveillance in the United Arab Emirates or China, but to have it institutionalized in this manner in what are accepted as “Western, liberal democracies” is the epitome of hypocrisy. In fact, the kind of dangerous precedent these so-called democracies are setting for the rest of the world is appalling.

Citizens of countries like Pakistan, India and many others in the developing world (some struggling against authoritarianism, others shedding their blood for safeguarding of their fundamental rights) are subject to even greater invasions of their privacy and right to freedom of expression if the governments of our countries seek to justify violations on the basis of precedent set by these guardians of democracy and the rule of law.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a report published in June 2014, highlighted the privacy concerns raised by communications data interference: “Even the mere possibility of communications information being captured creates an interference with privacy, with a potential chilling effect on rights, including those to free expression and association”.

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Similar concerns have been voiced by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, in a report issued in May 2016: “Surveillance may create a chilling effect on the online expression of ordinary citizens, who may self-censor for fear of being constantly tracked”.

Moreover, surveillance is known to have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, such as religious, ethnic and sexual minorities. The Special Rapporteur noted: “those with a legitimate and lawful interest in expressing dissent may feel watched or monitored to such an extent that they are deterred from attending protests and other gatherings, again emphasizing the disproportionate impact of bulk powers”.

Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson poignantly stated in a recent interview “Julian has never been concerned about facing British or Swedish justice – he is worried about facing US injustice”. And the kind of precedent that will be set – for freedom of the press, freedom of expression, the right to information, and the right to privacy – is a dangerous one that should concern us all. If Assange is indeed subjected to “US injustice” today, it cements the foundations for future harassment, persecution and wrongful prosecutions of many future whistle-blowers, journalists, activists and dissenters who refuse to accept violations of our fundamental rights silently.

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