UN calls for balance between privacy and security

In a special discussion at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Flavia
Pansieri, the United Nations (UN) Deputy High Commissioner for Human
Rights, expressed her concern about increasing mass surveillance
programs conducted by states and private corporations. Ms. Pansieri
highlighted the importance of demonstrating that interferences with an
individual?s right to privacy are both necessary and proportionate to
address the specific identified security risk. ?Mandatory third-party
data retention ? where telephone companies and internet service
providers are required to store metadata about communications by their
customers, for subsequent access by law enforcement and intelligence
agencies ? appears neither necessary nor proportionate,? she said.

Ms. Pansieri's call is one of the several attempts by the UN to tackle
the issue. In June 2014, the High Commissioner for Human Rights
published a report ?The right to privacy in the digital age?, to respond
to the global concern at certain surveillance practices and the threat
they pose for human rights. The report gives examples of digital
surveillance used to target political opponents or dissidents, and cases
in which governments have demanded the access to traffic on the networks
of telecom companies, threatening to otherwise ban their services. It
recognises the necessity for surveillance of electronic communications,
conducted in compliance with the law, for legitimate law enforcement or
intelligence reasons, but points out that mass surveillance programs
?raise questions around the extent to which such measures are consistent
with international legal standards and whether stronger surveillance
safeguards are needed?.

Another report, published in September 2014, focuses on the implications
of mass digital surveillance for counter-terrorism purposes to the right
to privacy. Ben Emmerson, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and
protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering
terrorism, presented the report in the UN General Assembly on 23
September, saying that ?states need to squarely confront the fact that
mass surveillance programmes effectively do away with the right to
online privacy altogether?.

In the report Mr. Emmerson draws attention to the fact that states are
able to easily maintain an overview of Internet activity of specific
individuals or organisations, and that it's possible without any prior
suspicion related to them. He reminded that this kind of surveillance
?amounts to a systematic interference with the right to respect the
privacy of communications and requires a correspondingly compelling
justification?. The report concludes that ?merely to assert ? without
particularisation ? that mass surveillance technology can contribute to
the suppression and prosecution of acts of terrorism does not provide an
adequate human rights law justification for its use?.

In 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (68/167) on the
right to privacy in the digital age. The final report prepared by the
High Commissioner for Human Rights is expected to be presented at the UN
General Assembly in 2015. It will be contributing to the development of
an international convention on surveillance issues by giving
recommendations and clarifying principles, standards and best practices
to allow states to defend their safety respecting the international
human right laws.

UN against mass surveillance on the Internet (only in French, 17.11.2014)

Mass surveillance: exceptional measure or dangerous habit? (13.11.2014)

UN General Assembly: Promotion and protection of human rights and
fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (23.09.2014)

The right to privacy in the digital age - Report of the Office of the
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (30.06.2014)

UN special rapporteur slams US, UK spying on Internet users (24.10.2014)

Right to online privacy at risk as governments engage in mass
surveillance ? UN expert (23.10.2014)