BERLIN  - The United States is setting a dangerous example for the world with its sweeping surveillance programmes, giving governments an excuse for mass censorship of online communications, Human Rights Watch said in its annual report Tuesday.

The National Security Agency’s failure to respect privacy as a right will serve as a fig leaf for repressive states to force user data to stay within their own borders and crack down on free expression, New York-based HRW said.  “The US now leads in ability for global data capture, but other nations and actors are likely to catch up, and some already insist that more data be kept within their reach,” the group writes in its 667-page report examining the state of human rights in more than 90 countries, which was presented in Berlin.

“In the end, there will be no safe haven if privacy is seen as a strictly domestic issue, subject to many carve-outs and lax or non-existent oversight.”

It noted that the US government was “uniquely positioned to monitor global communications” as most of the world’s Internet traffic moves “through US territory or companies”, and thus bore particular responsibility to safeguard rights.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth told AFP that countries such as China, Russia and India, the world’s most populous democracy, were taking a page from the NSA’s playbook in eroding personal protections.

“The US government, for better or worse, is a trendsetter with respect to Internet privacy and Internet freedom,” Roth said in an interview.

“One reaction to the NSA snooping is that many countries are going to create in essence national Internets, they’re going to force Internet companies to keep user data in their country.

“That is going to make it much easier for them to figure out who is saying what on the Internet and to penalise them by censoring... critical speech.”

He said HRW had chosen Berlin to present its annual report because Germany had been a flashpoint of global outrage over fugitive contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA’s operations, including the monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.

Claims by US President Barack Obama that the right to privacy was not undermined when the government collects communications, only when it examines them, did not hold water, Roth said.

“Imagine that the government puts a video camera in your bedroom and says, ‘Don’t worry, this is just going into a government computer. We won’t look at it unless we have a really good reason’,” he said.

“Would you be reassured by that? Of course not. But that is exactly what the US government is proposing with respect to our private communications.”

Roth writes in the introduction to the report that the NSA’s actions have “largely eradicated the right to privacy in a modern world that virtually requires electronic communication”.

He said a speech by Obama on Friday outlining new curbs on intelligence practices was “finally a recognition that things are not right with the National Security Agency’s surveillance of our electronic communications” but did not go far enough.

“Up until now, he had basically been taking the posture, ‘Oh trust me, if you knew what I knew, you would not be so worried about this’,” Roth said.

“The problem is that the speech still does not recognise that any of us have a right (to) the privacy of this information, these are all discretionary matters on the part of the US government.”

The global report, the 24th of its kind, also highlighted the brutality against civilians in war-ravaged Syria and renewed a call for world leaders to use pressure to “end atrocities and hold perpetrators to account”.

“Despite a swiftly rising death toll and horrific abuses, Russia and China neutered the UN Security Council and enabled the killing of Syrian civilians by both sides,” Roth said in the report, while also criticising a US refusal to refer suspected war criminals to the International Criminal Court.

“As the Geneva II peace talks begin, with uncertain prospects of success, they shouldn’t become the latest excuse to avoid action to protect Syrian civilians. This requires real pressure to stop the killing and allow the delivery of the humanitarian aid they need to survive.”

Russia and China have repeatedly used their vetos at the Security Council to block firm UN action against the Syrian government.

Meanwhile, the Russian lawyer of Edward Snowden said Tuesday that the fugitive US intelligence leaker has feared for his life since reading of explicit threats against him by unnamed Pentagon officials.

“There are real threats to his life out there that actually do exist,” Snowden’s lawyer Anatoly Kucherena told Russia’s state-run Vesti 24 rolling news channel.

“These statements call for physical reprisal against Edward Snowden,” Kucherena said.

The former National Security Agency contractor is wanted by US authorities on treason charges for disclosing details of a vast Washington intelligence operation that monitored millions of phone calls and emails across the world.

Snowden received temporary asylum in Russia in August - a move that infuriated the United States and was a key factor behind President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin last year.

The 30-year-old has remained in hiding but is believed to be living in the Moscow area and learning Russian. Kucherena recently said that Snowden has also been working from home as an IT adviser for a major local website.

The Russian lawyer on Tuesday appeared to be referring to an article posted last week by the popular US online website BuzzFeed entitled “American Spies Want Edward Snowden Dead”.

The article quoted one Pentagon official as saying: “I would love to put a bullet in his head.”

“In a world where I would not be restricted from killing an American, I personally would go and kill him myself,” a current NSA analyst was further quoted as saying.

Kucherena said Snowden is constantly accompanied by security guards and is considering additional security measures.

“Edward is treating these as real threats to his life and wellbeing,” the Russian lawyer said. “Today, it might not be enough to have private guards.”

Kucherena added that he planned to ask US authorities to look into the publications and possibly ask the media outlets to identify their sources by name.

“We think that the US government must take note of such statements,” the lawyer said.

“The people who make extremist statements do so while wearing a mask - they do not reveal their identities.

“We will ask for these people’s masks to come off. We must know who this NSA officer is, who issues orders about ways to eliminate Edward Snowden.”

Snowden’s legacy has been mixed in the United States.

It has prompted Obama to announce a review of intelligence practises last week that included an end to the highly controversial monitoring of calls of leaders of allied nations - except for special cases.

The revelation that the NSA had tapped the mobile of German Chancellor Angela Merkel proved especially embarrassing for Obama due to the strength of their relationship and Germany’s importance to the United States.

Influential US publications such as The New York Times have added to the debate by suggesting that Snowden be either offered amnesty or a plea bargain allowing his safe return home.

The fugitive’s lawyer said Snowden was especially concerned by comments from a US Army intelligence officer that outlined a specific scenario under which the leaker could be discreetly poisoned.

The unnamed army officer told BuzzFeed that Snowden could be “poked” on his way home from buying groceries by a passerby who is actually a US agent.

Snowden “thinks nothing of it at the time (and soon) starts to feel a little woozy,” the US intelligence officer is quoted as saying.

“And the next thing you know he dies in the shower.”

Kucherena said he did not think the US Army officer’s statement was “a simply tongue-and-cheek remark for the media”.

“Such statements, of course, Edward treats as a real threat to his life because he lives a normal life and visits stores and goes outside,” Kucherena said.