Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert

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NEW YORK (23 October 2014) – United Nations human rights expert Ben Emmerson today urged Governments currently engaged on mass surveillance of the internet for counter-terrorism purposes to update their national legislations in line with international human rights law for new technology surveillance measures.

“States need to squarely confront the fact that mass surveillance programmes effectively do away with the right to online privacy altogether,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism, during the presentation of his report* to the UN General Assembly on the use of mass digital surveillance for counter-terrorism purposes, and the implications of bulk access technology for the right to privacy.

“I don’t accept the analogy that sending an email is like sending a post-card. States’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights include respecting the privacy and security of digital communications,” he said. “Measures that interfere with the right to privacy must be authorised by accessible and precise domestic law that pursues a legitimate aim, is proportionate and necessary.”

In his report, Mr. Emmerson acknowledges that the fight against terrorism is so crucial that may in principle form the basis of an arguable justification for mass surveillance of the internet. However, he stresses, “bulk access technology is indiscriminately corrosive of online privacy and impinges on the very essence of the right to privacy.”

“States should be transparent about the nature and extent of their internet penetration, its methodology and its justification, and should provide a detailed public account of the tangible benefits that accrue from its use,” Mr. Emmerson said.

The Special Rapporteur called on all States involved on mass digital surveillance technology to provide a detailed and evidence-based public justification for the systematic interference with the privacy rights of the online community by reference to the requirements of article 17 of the Covenant.

“We need strong and independent oversight bodies that are adequate for a review before these programmes are applied,” the human rights expert said. “Individuals must have the right to seek an effective remedy for any alleged violation of their online privacy rights.”

At the UN General Assembly, Mr. Emmerson reminded Governments of their obligation to equally protect the right to privacy of nationals and non-nationals and of those within and outside their jurisdiction. “Asymmetrical privacy protection regimes are a clear violation of the requirement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” he stated.

(*) Check the full report (A/69/397):

Ben Emmerson (United Kingdom) is the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. On 1 August 2011, he took up his functions on the mandate that was created in 2005 by the former United Nations Commission on Human, renewed by the UN Human Rights Council for a three year period in December 2007, in September 2010 and again in March 2013. As Special Rapporteur he is independent from any Government and serves in his individual capacity. Learn more, log on to:

State parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: 4&chapter=4&lang=en

The UN 2006 Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy: terrorism.shtml

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