In a special discussion at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Flavia Pansieri, the United Nations (UN) Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed her concern about increasing mass surveillance programs conducted by states and private corporations. Ms. Pansieri highlighted the importance of demonstrating that interferences with an individual’s right to privacy are both necessary and proportionate to address the specific identified security risk.
“Mandatory third-party data retention – where telephone companies and internet service providers are required to store metadata about communications by their customers, for subsequent access by law enforcement and intelligence agencies – appears neither necessary nor proportionate,” she said.
Ms. Pansieri’s call is one of the several attempts by the UN to tackle the issue. In June 2014, the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report “The right to privacy in the digital age”, to respond to the global concern at certain surveillance practices and the threat they pose for human rights. The report gives examples of digital surveillance used to target political opponents or dissidents, and cases in which governments have demanded the access to traffic on the networks of telecom companies, threatening to otherwise ban their services. It recognises the necessity for surveillance of electronic communications, conducted in compliance with the law, for legitimate law enforcement or intelligence reasons, but points out that mass surveillance programs “raise questions around the extent to which such measures are consistent with international legal standards and whether stronger surveillance safeguards are needed”.
Another report, published in September 2014, focuses on the implications of mass digital surveillance for counter-terrorism purposes to the right to privacy. Ben Emmerson, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, presented the report in the UN General Assembly on 23 September, saying that
“states need to squarely confront the fact that mass surveillance programmes effectively do away with the right to online privacy altogether”.
In the report Mr. Emmerson draws attention to the fact that states are able to easily maintain an overview of Internet activity of specific individuals or organisations, and that it’s possible without any prior suspicion related to them. He reminded that this kind of surveillance “amounts to a systematic interference with the right to respect the privacy of communications and requires a correspondingly compelling justification”. The report concludes that “merely to assert – without particularisation – 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”.
In 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (68/167) on the right to privacy in the digital age. The final report prepared by the High Commissioner for Human Rights is expected to be presented at the UN General Assembly in 2015. It will be contributing to the development of an international convention on surveillance issues by giving recommendations and clarifying principles, standards and best practices to allow states to defend their safety respecting the international human right laws.
UN against mass surveillance on the Internet (only in French, 17.11.2014)
Mass surveillance: exceptional measure or dangerous habit? (13.11.2014)
UN General Assembly: Promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (23.09.2014)
The right to privacy in the digital age – Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (30.06.2014)
UN special rapporteur slams US, UK spying on Internet users (24.10.2014)
Right to online privacy at risk as governments engage in mass surveillance – UN expert (23.10.2014)