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'We Only Spy on Foreigners': The Myth of a Universal Right to Privacy and the Practice of Foreign Mass Surveillance

50 Pages Posted: 27 Jul 2017 Last revised: 5 Oct 2017

Asaf Lubin

Yale University, Law School, Students; Yale University - Information Society Project; Privacy International

Date Written: October 5, 2017


The digital age brought with it a new epoch in global political life, one neatly coined by Professor Howard as the “Pax Technica”. In this new world order, Government and industry are “tightly bound” in technological and security arrangements which serve to push forward an information and cyber revolution of unparalleled magnitude. While the rise of information technologies tells a miraculous story of human triumph over the physical constraints that once shackled him, these very technologies are also the cause of grave concern. Intelligence agencies have been recently involved in the exercise of global indiscriminate surveillance, which purports to go beyond their limited territorial jurisdiction, and sweep in “the telephone, internet, and location records of whole populations”. Today’s political leaders and corporate elites are increasingly engaged in these kind of programs of bulk interception, collection, mining, analysis, dissemination, and exploitation of foreign communications data, that are easily susceptible to gross abuse and impropriety. When called out about any of these programs, policy makers would often respond to their constituencies with a shrug and a smile: "we only apply these programs to foreigners, you have nothing to worry about".

While the human rights community continues to adamantly uphold the myth system of a universal right to privacy, in actuality the Pax Technica has already erected a different operational code, one in which “our” right to privacy and “theirs” is routinely discerned. One higher set of standards and protections is provided for those within the territory of the State and a lowered set is handed to those abroad. This distinction is a common feature in the wording of electronic communications surveillance regimes and the practice of signals intelligence collection agencies, and it is further legitimized by the steadfast support of the laymen general public. Nonetheless, a liberal defense of this distinction is non-existent in the literature, as human rights scholars continue to oppose it arguing that it reflects in-group biases and violates the principle of non-discrimination.

In this piece I try to make the liberal case for the distinction, justifying in a limited sense, certain legal differentiations in treatment between domestic and foreign surveillance. These justifications, as I show in the piece, are grounded in practical limitations in the way foreign surveillance is conducted both generally, and in the digital age more specifically. I will further make a controversial claim, that in fighting this absolutist battle for universality, human rights defenders are losing the far bigger war over ensuring some privacy protections for foreigners in the global mass surveillance context. Accepting that certain distinctions are in fact legitimate, creates an opportunity to step outside the bounded thinking of a one-size-fits-all human rights standards for all surveillance practices, and begin a much needed conversation on what a uniquely tailored human rights regime might look like in the foreign surveillance context. This piece, thus, makes a first attempt at sketching out such a tailored framework, with the hope of bridging the divide between privacy scholars and national security practitioners.

Keywords: Surveillance, Human Rights, European Court of Human Rights, International Human Rights Law, Privacy, Extraterritoriality, Bulk Interception, International Law, National Security, Intelligence, Non-Discrimination

Suggested Citation

Lubin, Asaf, 'We Only Spy on Foreigners': The Myth of a Universal Right to Privacy and the Practice of Foreign Mass Surveillance (October 5, 2017). Chicago Journal of International Law, Vol. 18, No. 2, 2018. Available at SSRN:

Asaf Lubin (Contact Author)

Yale University, Law School, Students ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

Yale University - Information Society Project ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

Privacy International ( email )

62 Britton street
London, eC1m 5uy
United Kingdom

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