UN Canvasses Online Privacy Protection


The United Nations has called on all Member States involved in online mass surveillance to provide detailed and evidence-based justification for the systematic interference of their citizens’ privacy.

This call was made by Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights during the presentation of his latest report to the General Assembly body dealing with cultural, social and humanitarian issues (Third Committee). According to him, “States need to squarely confront the fact that mass surveillance programmes effectively do away with the right to online privacy altogether,”

Mr. Emmerson argued that “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,” 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.

He 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.”

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

This call further stresses the need for states to be transparent about the nature of their electronic mass surveillance programmes.