Right to online privacy at risk as governments engage in mass surveillance – UN expert

23 October 2014

States must be transparent about the nature of their electronic mass surveillance programmes, an independent United Nations counter-terrorism expert said today as he warned about the impact such measures might have on individuals’ right to privacy.

“States need to squarely confront the fact that mass surveillance programmes effectively do away with the right to online privacy altogether,” Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, told the General Assembly body dealing with cultural, social and humanitarian issues (Third Committee) during the presentation his latest report.

“Measures that interfere with the right to privacy must be authorized by accessible and precise domestic law that pursues a legitimate aim, is proportionate and necessary,” he continued, adding that he refused to “accept the analogy that sending an email is like sending a post-card” as States’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also extended to the digital world.

Mr. Emmerson has long emphasized the need for transparency and accountability in government intelligence gathering operations. In 2012, for instance, he criticized the United States District Court of Washington, D. C.’s “unjustified maintenance of secrecy” following its decision to refuse freedom of information requests by a British organization on extraordinary renditions.

In his current report on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism, the Special Rapporteur conceded that the fight against terrorism remained a critical priority and could, in principle, “form the basis of an arguable justification for mass surveillance of the internet.” But, he stressed, bulk access technology remained “indiscriminately corrosive” of online privacy and impinged on “the very essence of the right to privacy.”

Mr. Emmerson called on all Member States involved in mass surveillance to provide a detailed and evidence-based justification for the systematic interference of their citizens’ privacy and emphasized the need for “strong and independent” oversight bodies that are “adequate for a review before these programmes are applied.”

“Individuals must have the right to seek an effective remedy for any alleged violation of their online privacy rights,” he said.

Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

 

♦ Receive daily updates directly in your inbox - Subscribe here to a topic.
♦ Download the UN News app for your iOS or Android devices.

News Tracker: Past Stories on This Issue

UN expert regrets US court decision preventing oversight of intelligence services

An independent United Nations counter-terrorism expert today expressed profound regret at a decision by a United States court to refuse freedom of information requests by a British organization on extraordinary renditions.