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Cybersecurity & Standards, Government Surveillance

UN Resolves to Take On State Surveillance

This week, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted by consensus “The right to privacy in the digital age,” a resolution introduced by Brazil and Germany in the wake of the on-going revelations about the communications surveillance activities of the United States and other countries. The resolution signals that the General Assembly considers privacy an important issue for the United Nations agenda and bolsters the growing drumbeat in favor of international surveillance reform. The resolution also affords the UN the opportunity to decisively address human rights obligations across national borders, a key issue in the discussion about communications surveillance and human rights.

There are two important elements to “The right to privacy in the digital age.” First, the resolution calls on all countries “to respect and protect the right to privacy,” end practices that violate this right, and take measures to prevent future violations. To this end, it urges nations to review their laws and procedures regarding communications surveillance and the interception and collection of personal data and bring practices in line with international human rights standards, especially with respect to privacy. In addition, it calls for greater transparency and accountability on the part of national governments. This is a welcome response from governments around the world to calls from human rights advocates and industry alike for reform to states’ surveillance practices.

The resolution also requests that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights present recommendations to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on the “protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of digital communications and collection of personal data, including on a mass scale. . .” The General Assembly will take up these issues in its 69th session, scheduled for September 2014. CDT is encouraged that the resolution mentions states’ extraterritorial obligations (the issue of whether and to what extent governments are obligated to respect and protect the human rights of people outside their national borders), which are critical for holding countries accountable in the digital age.

This week’s resolution affirms the July 2012 resolution of the Human Rights Council, recognizing that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.” While this principle is now widely supported by governments around the world, many nations have a long way to go in actually implementing this concept, particularly in regards to their ability to surveil the communications of people wholly outside their borders. For example, the United States, one of the co-sponsors of the HRC resolution, has put few limits on communications surveillance of “non-US persons,” condoning warrantless surveillance of people abroad for broadly defined “foreign intelligence purposes”. States must hold up their end of the resolution by bringing national surveillance and data collection practices in line with internationally recognized human rights standards. CDT encourages the High Commissioner to decisively refute the notion that states have minimal human rights obligations in their surveillance of people outside their borders and to take a stand for the rights of global citizens.