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24 Oct, 2014

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

United Nations, UN News Centre, 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.

Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

“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 added.

“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.

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.

He 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.

Click here to download the full report here.