Surveillance scandal in discussion at the United Nations

By EDRi · September 25, 2013

The surveillance scandal has now reached the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, which opened its 24th session last week to a volley of questions about privacy and spying, many of them targeted at the United States and United Kingdom. (That’s perhaps not surprising, since U.N. representatives were among those listed as being monitored by the NSA and GCHQ).

The opening statement by the eminent South African human rights lawyer Navi Pillay (now the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights) warned of the “broad scope of national security surveillance in countries, including the United States and United Kingdom,” and urged all countries to “ensure that adequate safeguards are in place to prevent security agency overreach and to protect the right to privacy and other human rights.” On 13 September 2013 the German Ambassador Schumacher delivered a joint statement on behalf of Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Hungary expressing their concern about the consequences of “surveillance, decryption and mass data collection.”

The UN Human Rights Committee is also set to scrutinize the United States on their compliance with Article 17 (right to privacy) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United States’ written response to Human Rights Committee has already laid out a diplomatic response in favour of the Patriot and FISA provisions. It notably dodges the key question that is emerging from other countries regarding these programs: if the U.S. government cannot rein in its domestic surveillance program, riven as it is with constitutional and statutory problems, just how much worse are the controls on the surveillance of non-US persons?

This is not just a matter of the United States’ international reputation. The greatest risk to the Internet in the international arena right now lies in the formation of an unholy alliance between countries who are already seeking excuses to spy and censor the net and those, like the United States, who have previously argued against such practices, but are now having to defend their own surveillance excesses with similar language.

Without promising substantive reform at home, the U.S. and the U.K. risk alienating their own allies at the United Nations, while granting a carte blanche for other countries to pursue a repressive Internet agenda abroad. The Western countries implicated in the NSA scandal should grab onto the full set of principles as a liferaft: a way that they can show a commitment to transparency and proportionality in a way that obliges other countries to follow the same standards. Otherwise, the U.S. and the U.K. will be seen as having started a race to the bottom of privacy standards: a race too many other countries will be happy to join.

Full text: Surveillance at the United Nations (17.09.2013)

Joint Statement by Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Hungary to the Human Rights Council (13.09.2013)

Codename ‘Apalachee’: How America Spies on Europe and the UN (26.08.2013)

Opening Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Human Rights Council 24th Session (9.09.2013)

Brazilian President Warns US On Surveillance, Calls For UN Reform (25.09.2013)

(Contribution by Danny O’Brien and Katitza Rodriguez – EDRi member Electronic Frontier Foundation EFF)

This article is also available in Deutsch.