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Snowden backs international campaign to outlaw mass surveillance

Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked documents to the press, wants the United Nations to pass a proposal to end mass snooping by governments and also protect whistle-blowers like himself.

Snowden spoke via video from Russia to show his support for an antisurveillance treaty. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

NEW YORK -- Edward Snowden wants to lead the charge to take back the public's privacy.

The former US National Security Agency worker who leaked NSA files to the press helped launch a campaign Thursday to pass what's informally being called the Snowden Treaty. The proposed international agreement would outlaw mass surveillance and protect whistle-blowers like himself.

"This is a global problem that affects all of us," Snowden said via video from Russia to a room filled with reporters and activists. "We have to come forward with proposals to assert what our rights are, traditionally and digitally."

The Snowden Treaty has the potential to vastly change the way governments gather intelligence on their citizens and other countries. But it's unclear whether such a sweeping regulation on information-gathering could win the support it needs from UN member countries.

The treaty was conceived by civil rights activist David Miranda, whose partner, journalist Glenn Greenwald, helped publish many of the Snowden revelations. Miranda told the crowd Thursday that he came up with the idea for the treaty after British authorities two years ago interrogated him for about nine hours, using UK terror laws to detain him.

"That balanced me to fight against the system that is so corrupted," he said.

David Miranda, center, calls on the public to get involved and pressure governments to curtail mass surveillance. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

The proposal -- formally called the International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers -- would need to be ratified by the United Nations. Supporters expect that the work of finding backers from the public and member nations will take years. Miranda said there are dialogues with governments on the proposal already, but he declined to disclose which countries.

"I expect it will be extremely difficult," said Betsy Page Sigman, a distinguished teaching professor at Georgetown University who's studied and taught political science for years. She added that the topic of mass surveillance and Snowden himself are "very controversial" and member countries will disagree on what levels of privacy are appropriate.

Greenwald said Thursday that the treaty would be a vital way of protecting the rights of whistle-blowers. He noted how Snowden, after leaking millions of National Security Agency documents in 2013, found himself facing the potential of a long prison sentence if he didn't quickly find protection in another country. He ended up in Russia, where he's lived ever since.

"I think the critical part of this treaty is to say that whistle-blowers are entitled to protection on an international level," Greenwald said. "They shouldn't have to rely on some sort of ad hoc, desperate attempt at the last minute to avoid being put into prison for 40 years."

The campaign is part of an international effort led by advocacy groups, including Avaaz, focused on human rights in the digital age.

Despite the challenges of pushing the treaty, speakers at Thursday's event said they were heartened that the conversation on privacy has changed since the Snowden revelations and that more major tech companies are working to encrypt their customer data to prevent further government snooping.

Though governments may be unlikely to agree to such a treaty, Miranda said they could if people got involved and insisted on such changes.

"They don't want to restrain their powers of surveillance," Miranda said. "It's up to us to stand up and make that change...This is not for them, it's for us."

Correction, September 29: The Electronic Frontier Foundation isn't currently part of the campaign supporting the Snowden Treaty, as the article previously mentioned.