UN report says online surveillance violates human rights

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has released a report ‘on the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or the interception of digital communications and the collection of personal data, including on a mass scale.’

In it, he heavily criticizes the United States‘ NSA for potentially violating human rights on a worldwide scale,

International human rights law provides a clear and universal framework for the promotion and protection of the right to privacy, including in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance, the interception of digital communications and the collection of personal data. Practices in many States have, however, revealed a lack of adequate national legislation and/or enforcement, weak procedural safeguards, and ineffective oversight. All of these have contributed to a lack of accountability for arbitrary or unlawful interference in the right to privacy.’

Importantly, Pillay argues that mass surveillance breeches article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that,

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

This means that such surveillance is likely illegal under international law, although Pillay does go to pains to point out that it is mass surveillance, rather than targeted surveillance that is (in his opinion) the problem,

The prevention of terrorism is plainly a legitimate aim for this purpose, but the activities of intelligence and law enforcement agencies in this field must still comply with international human rights law. Merely to assert — without particularization — that mass surveillance technology can contribute to the suppression and prosecution of acts of terrorism does not provide an adequate human rights law justification for its use.

Pillay argues that the practice of requiring ISPs and communications providers to keep logs of metadata ‘appears neither necessary nor proportionate,’ while at the same time slamming the US government’s attempts to claim that ‘metadata’ is somehow qualitatively different from ‘real data’,

‘From the perspective of the right to privacy, this distinction is not persuasive. The aggregation of information commonly referred to as ‛metadata’ may give an insight into an individual’s behavior, social relationships, private preferences and identity that go beyond even that conveyed by accessing the content of a private communication.

The report also notes that US warrantless intelligence gathering of foreign ‘suspects’ under the 2008 FISA Amendments Act may violate the Human Rights Committee’s prohibition on any nation taking action outside its territory that it would be prohibited from taking ‛at home,’ and that despite its many assertions, no government has proved any tangible benefits from mass surveillance. It also praises the actions of NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden,

Those who disclose human rights violations should be protected, we need them… We owe a great deal to him for revealing this kind of information.

The report was created as a response to UN Resolution 68/167, co-sponsored by 57 member states and approved by the U.N. General Assembly last December, with the aim of,

Reaffirming the human right to privacy, according to which no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, and the right to the protection of the law against such interference, and recognizing that the exercise of the right to privacy is important for the realization of the right to freedom of expression and to hold opinions without interference, and is one of the foundations of a democratic society.

Unfortunately, while it is great to see such an authoritative body as the UN give a clear condemnation of mass surveillance practices, it is unlikely to lead to any concrete reform.

Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

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