On the same day that a panel of experts delivered a report to the United States president recommending sweeping changes to the way that the National Security Agency collects, handles and stores intelligence, the United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the protection of users’ right to privacy and emphasizing their right to be free from online surveillance.
The action by the U.N. comes in response to the avalanche of documents and information that have been made public since June regarding the capabilities and methods of the NSA and some of the intelligence agencies in other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada. Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have revealed the agency’s metadata collection program, the PRISM Internet traffic collection system and many others, which, taken together, form a picture of large-scale surveillance of Internet users’ movements and activities. The leaks have disturbed many in the privacy and human rights communities, especially, and have been the catalyst for calls for intelligence reform and greater oversight of what’s being collected and stored.
The resolution passed by the U.N. condemns the sweeping surveillance of innocent citizens of member states and demands that they “respect and protect the right to privacy, including in the context of digital communication.”
The resolution is the work of representatives from Germany and Brazil, and Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said that the operations revealed by Snowden have emphasized the importance of ensuring that basic human rights, including the right to privacy, extend to the online world.
“Snowden’s case has shown the need to protect persons disclosing information on matters that have implications for human rights, as well as the importance of ensuring respect for the right to privacy,” she said.
“The right to privacy, the right to access to information and freedom of expression are closely linked. The public has the democratic right to take part in the public affairs and this right cannot be effectively exercised by solely relying on authorized information.”
The resolution also requires that Pillay put together a report on the protection of the right to privacy online, particularly in the context of mass surveillance, and deliver it to the General Assembly. The measure, which the United States lobbied to modify, also asks member states to look at their intelligence and data-collection programs with an eye on privacy and see wether modifications are needed.
Image from Flickr photos of PAVDW.