The United Nations has joined the growing chorus of people, organizations and activists denouncing government mass surveillance of citizens without cause and says that such programs are a violation of basic human rights.

The Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural – Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly has adopted a draft resolution affirming that arbitrary surveillance and collection of personal information violate the universal human right to privacy and expression.

While the UN document does not call out any specific nations by name, it seems clear that resolution is a direct response to the United States’ and United Kingdom’s increasingly public spying operations.

The resolution is derived from and implements the recommendations of separate report by Frank LaRue, UN Special Rapporteur on Free Expression, made public earlier this year. LaRue’s report stated the following:

“Undue interference with individuals’ privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas…. An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.”

The purpose of the resolution is essentially to reaffirm the human right to privacy despite the fact that emerging technologies make pervasive and boundless spying easier to undertake than ever before.

It also stresses “the importance of the full respect for the freedom to seek, receive and impart information, including the fundamental importance of access to information and democratic participation” while noting that the need to ensure national security is not justification for nations to scoff at international human rights laws.

Jillian York and Katitza Rodriguez, the directors for international freedom of expression and international rights, respectively, at the Electronic Frontier Foundation boiled the resolution down to the five following points:

  1. To respect and protect the right to privacy, including in the context of digital communication.
  2. To take measures to put an end to violations of those rights and to create the conditions to prevent such violations.
  3. To review their procedures, practices and legislation regarding the surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data, including mass surveillance, interception and collection … by ensuring the full and effective implementation of all their obligations under international human rights law.
  4. To establish independent national oversight mechanisms capable of maintaining transparency and accountability for state surveillance of communications.
  5. Requests the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit a report to the General Assembly on the protection of the right to privacy, including in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of digital communications and collection of personal data, including on a mass scale.

“While we see this as a small victory for privacy, we must note that the resolution was weakened by the United States and its allies who stripped out a sentence that explicitly defined mass surveillance as a violation of human rights,” wrote York and Rodriguez. “The US also tried (and failed) to remove any suggestion that privacy protestations apply extraterritorially. The final text of the draft resolution noted that states have only ‘deep concerns’ with the ‘negative impacts’ of surveillance and collection of personal data, at home and abroad, when carried out on a mass scale.”

The digital advocacy group went on to call the draft important for restating the already accepted international legal precedent that any state conducting surveillance outside its own borders remains bound to upholding the right to privacy for everyone.

Categories: Privacy