UN Says Mass Surveillance Violates Human Rights

from the because-it-does dept

Over the summer, the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, had said that mass surveillance likely violates human rights. At the time, she said:

?International human rights law provides a clear and universal framework for the promotion and protection of the right to privacy, including in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance, the interception of digital communications and the collection of personal data. Practices in many [s]tates have, however, revealed a lack of adequate national legislation and/or enforcement, weak procedural safeguards, and ineffective oversight. All of these have contributed to a lack of accountability for arbitrary or unlawful interference in the right to privacy.?

Now a new report from a different UN official, issued to the UN General Assembly, backs that up and appears to go further:

International human rights law requires States to provide an articulable and evidence-based justification for any interference with the right to privacy, whether on an individual or mass scale. It is a central axiom of proportionality that the greater the interference with protected human rights, the more compelling the justification must be if it is to meet the requirements of the Covenant. The hard truth is that the use of mass surveillance technology effectively does away with the right to privacy of communications on the Internet altogether. By permitting bulk access to all digital communications traffic, this technology eradicates the possibility of any individualized proportionality analysis. It permits intrusion on private communications without independent (or any) prior authorization based on suspicion directed at a particular individual or organization.

The report is clear that it’s not talking about just any surveillance — but mass surveillance. It notes that preventing terrorism is a legitimate reason for targeted surveillance, but that since there’s no proof that mass surveillance actually helps stop terrorism, it’s in violation:

Article 17 of the Covenant provides that any interference with private communications must be prescribed by law, and must be a necessary and proportionate means of achieving a legitimate public policy objective. The prevention of terrorism is plainly a legitimate aim for this purpose, but the activities of intelligence and law enforcement agencies in this field must still comply with international human rights law. Merely to assert ? without particularization ? 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. The fact that something is technically feasible, and that it may sometimes yield useful intelligence, does not by itself mean that it is either reasonable or lawful (in terms of international or domestic law)

The report also takes on the whole “but it’s the internet, you have no privacy anyway” argument pretty clearly:

Some argue that users of the Internet have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the first place, and must assume that their communications are available to be monitored by corporate and State entities alike. The classic analogy drawn by those who support this view is between sending an unencrypted email and sending a postcard. Whatever the merits of this comparison, it does not answer the key questions of legality, necessity and proportionality. The very purpose of the Covenant?s requirement for explicit and publicly accessible legislation governing State interference with communications is to enable individuals to know the extent of the privacy rights they actually enjoy and to foresee the circumstances in which their communications may be subjected to surveillance. Yet the value of this technology as a counter-terrorism and law enforcement tool rests in the fact that users of the Internet assume their communications to be confidential (otherwise there would be no purpose in intruding upon them). This is reflected in the assertions made by members of the intelligence communities of the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland following the disclosure of mass surveillance programmes operated by these two States, in which the disclosures were said to have damaged national security by alerting potential terrorists to the fact that their communications were under surveillance.

[….] The suggestion that users have voluntarily forfeited their right to privacy is plainly unwarranted. It is a general principle of international human rights law that individuals can be regarded as having given up a protected human right only through an express and unequivocal waiver, voluntarily given on an informed basis. In the modern digital world, merely using the Internet as a means of private communication cannot conceivably constitute an informed waiver of the right to privacy under article 17 of the Covenant.

The Internet is not a purely public space. It is composed of many layers of private as well as social and public realms. Those making informed use of social media platforms in which messages are posted in full public view obviously have no reasonable expectation of privacy. The postcard analogy is entirely apposite for the dissemination of information through the public dimensions of Twitter and Facebook, for example, or postings on public websites. But reading a postcard is not an apposite analogy for intercepting private messages sent by e-mail, whether they are encrypted or unencrypted.

From there, the report notes that if states wish to impede on this privacy in the name of preventing terrorism, they must show tangible benefits from such surveillance — and, so far, no government has done so. Furthermore, the report warns of:

…an ever present danger of ?purpose creep?, by which measures justified on counter-terrorism grounds are made available for use by public authorities for much less weighty public interest purposes.

It’s good to see such a clear condemnation of the problems of bulk/mass surveillance efforts — almost always conducted with no evidence of benefit. Of course, the reality is that this report is unlikely to lead the intelligence community to change its stance on these programs, but it further highlights just how out of step with basic human rights these programs remain.

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Comments on “UN Says Mass Surveillance Violates Human Rights”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yep, the US invented the fuckin’ UN, well Roosevelt’s wife as he was getting too decrepit. If the UN was applied (no sanctions never applied, no help never received).

I’m glad the UN visited my then prime minister (provincial) “Jean” John Charest to tell him his anti-protest Law 78 was not only against the canadian charts of rights and liberties (our bill of rights, made in the 70’s by the only party that cares about social issues (that’s able to get in power, the Liberals, the NDP reached their apex now I’m afraid, anyway enough canadian politics.

Soon after people, high ranking UN Officials took a trip from New York to Quebec City, we won, us being students so that our student fees don’t grow by 75%. Politicians seems to have forgotten that being a member of the OCDE means your goal is to reach completely free post-secondary education.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Oh dear god i’d love to see that, but that’s impossible, they’re part of the 5 permanent security members. We already have a NWO consisting of those 5 countries sort of, they can vote on things, it’s usually 3 against 2 these days though, not a lot of cooperation, there was way more cooperation during the USSR days ffs, which is kinda worrying.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Hehe, yes that is the paradox of the intelligence “needs”.

If you look at the history, though, it already went towards more surveillance with the telegraph rules. Things went from bad to worse with the telephone and now the internet surveillance is so all-encompassing that privacy and human rights are meaningless concepts. The technologies have made it possible to improve surveillance and a possibility is now a must use for the independent states of surveillance.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Not so much, really. First, “metadata” about snail mail is collected as fully and completely as “metadata” about email and other internet use. Second, the postal service has an established system that allows intelligence agencies to open, examine, and reseal physical mail whenever they so desire.

You can, of course, encrypt your letter — but that’s no different than encrypting your electronic communications.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Maybe, but:

1. Anyone can send a letter anonymously (or use a fake name), and the postal services will still deliver it. This further reduces the amount of ‘useful’ metadata that can be collected considerably.

2. Before mail can interceped and opened by an intelligence agancy, a lot of legal steps have to happen (obtaining warrants via court etc). I doubt it is as easy as “when they so desire”. And even then, you’re free to send encrypted messages.

All in all more secure, anonymous and private than the e-alternative…

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Anyone can send a letter anonymously (or use a fake name), and the postal services will still deliver it.”

Absolutely true. This is also true online as well.

“Before mail can interceped and opened by an intelligence agancy, a lot of legal steps have to happen”

Not so many as you might suppose. There have been a number of cases where it has been revealed that mail was getting opened, examined, photographed, and resealed in the absence of anything like a court order. In practice, all it takes is the postmaster agreeing to it.

“All in all more secure, anonymous and private than the e-alternative…”

I disagree. Yes, there are a couple of slight advantages to postal mail, but they’re not great enough to really matter. In either case, if you care about privacy, you need to take extra steps to ensure it. They’re pretty much the same extra steps, too: you have to keep your name and address off of the “envelope” and you have to encrypt your message.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

But if you aren’t a suspect chances of having your messages intercepted is smaller when it is more of a hassle to do. Intercepting – as opposed to developing methods and investigating – is extremely convenient since a computer does a lot of the work. By making things easier, you can also expect a broadened search, which is indeed what the legal changes and the leaks seems to indicate.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

This is true. I’m not saying there is no privacy advantage to using the postal service. I’m saying that advantage is much smaller than people often think, and that feeling that the mail is substantially more private than electronic communication is unwarranted. In either case, you have to take extra steps if privacy is your concern.

Anonymous Coward says:

UN representatives sent because they disagreed with how Texas handled elections: 44
UN representatives sent to shill Agenda 21: too many to count
UN representatives sent to stop mass surveillance: 0

Well, U.N., how about you start actually DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT instead of being all talk while proving every conspiracy theorist right.

Anonymous Coward says:

So is the Un going to grow a pair and start sanctions or something at least towards the warmongering Leaders of the USA.

I have no problems with the average citizen, just their leadership. As long as Americans are apathetic to the problems their criminal government inflict on the rest of the world. The average American does not even factor in any solution that is created from any other country. If Americans were actively fighting back against their our of control government maybe they would factor in.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Postcards.

“that doesn’t imply that I’d also accept the government making a copy of every single postcard that anyone ever sends and keeping it in a searchable database forever.”

You may not be OK with it, but the post office currently does precisely this anyway. Every piece of mail they handle is photographed, both sides, and stored in a searchable database. They’ve been doing this for a long time now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Will “democratically” elected governments listen? Will they fuck!
Their probably on their phones right now to their lawyers, pr, company bread maker, figuring out how to circumvent, ..YES, our.damn.rights

They wonder why we hate ’em so……i wonder if disagreing with their obvious bullshit is their definition of “domestic” terrorism……i kinda think thats were their heading, political, idealogical persecution…….i.e. Disagree with me, bam, your a terrorist……..and all the power they’ve given themselves, plus the vague definition…………is it me, or is this just to fucking obvious

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