UN expert Calls for Moratorium on Surveillance Technology to end ‘Free-for-All’ Abuses

David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression
David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression

The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kaye, has made a case in his latest report to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the immediate banning of surveillance technology  until “effective” national or international controls are put in place to lessen its harmful impact.

He also appealed to States to adopt domestic safeguards to protect individuals from unlawful surveillance, in line with international human rights law.

David made the appeal as he prepared to present his latest report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva empasising that while States were largely responsible, companies appeared to be “operating without constraint” too, in a “free for all” private surveillance industry environment.

He warned in a statement that: “Surveillance tools can interfere with human rights, from the right to privacy and freedom of expression to rights of association and assembly, religious belief, non-discrimination, and public participation,” adding “… yet they are not subject to any effective global or national control.”

He pointed out in his report that report, the surveillance of journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics and UN investigators can lead to arbitrary detention and has actually been inked to torture and possibly to extrajudicial killings, citing various ways that States and other actors monitor individuals who exercise their right to freedom of expression.

He said hacking computers, networks and mobile phones; using facial recognition surveillance and other sophisticated surveillance tools to shadow journalists, politicians, UN investigators and human rights advocates are some of the ways States and companies monitor freedom of expression.

The Special Rapporteur called for the development of publicly-owned mechanisms for the approval and oversight of surveillance technology and asked countries to strengthen export controls and provide assurances of legal redress to victims.

He said: “It is imperative that States limit the uses of such technologies to lawful ones only, subjected to the strictest sorts of oversight and authorisation,” adding “… that States condition export of such technologies on the strictest human rights due diligence”.

Addressing the issue of corporate responsibility, Mr. Kaye insisted that companies should adhere to their human rights responsibilities, as they “appear to be operating without constraint”.

To remedy this, David suggested that firms should disclose data transfers, conduct “rigorous” human rights impact assessments, and avoid transfers to States unable to guarantee compliance with human rights norms.

He noted that: “The private surveillance industry is a free for all, an environment in which States and industry are collaborating in the spread of technology that is causing immediate and regular harm to individuals and organisations that are essential to democratic life – journalists, activists, opposition figures, lawyers, and others.”

He pointed out: “It is time for governments and companies to recognise their responsibilities and impose rigorous requirements on this industry, with the goal of protecting human rights for all.”