Press release

UN: Human Rights Watchdog Slams Governments’ Mass Surveillance Programmes

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16 Jul 2014



Today, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, published a landmark report on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age, containing strong recommendations for States to bring their surveillance practices in line with international human rights standards.

“At a time when the UK government is running roughshod of people's privacy without proper democratic scrutiny, the UN’s top human rights official has strongly rebuked claims that bulk collection and retention of peoples' data is necessary or proportionate,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

“This UN report makes it absolutely clear that mass surveillance threatens our freedoms to speak and associate with others freely without fear of intrusion by the State. It is critical that States heed the High Commissioner's recommendations and review their surveillance laws to ensure that they protect people's rights to freedom of expression and privacy online”, Hughes added.

ARTICLE 19 warmly welcomes the groundbreaking report, in particular its recognition that:

  • Mass surveillance threatens our fundamental freedoms, including our freedom to speak and associate with others without fear from intrusion by the State;
  • Secret rules and secret interpretations of laws and policies on surveillance do not have the quality of law;
  • Information about communications (metadata) deserves the same level of protection as the content of communications;
  • It is not enough for governments to assert that they need access to a haystack in order to find needles. Bulk data collection, whether or not it is ultimately used, is a clear interference with the right to privacy and governments must demonstrate that such measures are necessary and proportionate;
  • Mandatory third-party data retention ‘just in case’ is neither necessary or proportionate;
  • Foreign and domestic data should be equally protected by the law and States have a duty to protect the right to privacy and freedom of expression when exercising their jurisdiction in relation to the collection, interception, processing, access and retention of data;
  • A right to notification is critical to the exercise of the right to an effective remedy
  • Companies that supply data or mass surveillance technology in contravention with the right to privacy under international law risk being complicit in human rights abuses;
  • Companies should narrowly interpret government demands for data, seek clarification as to the scope and legal basis for such demands, and require a court order before meeting government requests for data.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will present the report and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) at its 27th Session in September. The HRC Session will also feature a panel discussion on the right to privacy in the digital age, where States and other stakeholders will put on record their positions on this issue.

“The High Commissioner’s report provides a strong footing for HRC action on the right to privacy in the digital age in September,” said Hughes. “The HRC must adopt a resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age at the upcoming Session. A resolution is critical to bolster international standards and to ensure sustained UN attention to this issue, in particular by creating a Special Procedure on the right to privacy.” 

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