The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism has released a report detailing how mass surveillance programs are a violation of privacy rights protected by treaties and conventions.
Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson began his report in December 2013 after whistleblower Edward Snowden released documents related to global government surveillance programs. Emmerson concluded the report in July 2014. He issued the report to the U.N. General Assembly, declaring that mass surveillance programs were born out of alliances between governments and compliant tech companies.
He writes that states have become dependent on “the private sector to facilitate digital surveillance.” Emmerson concludes that corporations have been directly involved in the creation of “communications infrastructure that facilitates mass surveillance. ” The other focus of the report is the difference between targeted surveillance aimed at specific suspects and mass surveillance of large portions of the population.
The report called mass surveillance “incompatible with existing concepts of privacy”, and stated that although there may be legitimate justifications for such measures, none of the countries involved have shown “a detailed and evidence-based public justification for its necessity.” The continued secrecy and lack of transparency by the so called “Five Eyes” nations has allowed them to “retain a monopoly of information about its (mass surveillance) impact.”
The Special Rapporteur states that the nations involved in mass surveillance are in violation of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was drafted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. The United States signed on in 1992. Article 17 states that individuals are guaranteed a right to privacy, and, according to the report, “individuals have the right to share information and ideas with one another without interference by the State.”
Without safeguards against this violation of privacy we are likely to see more rights infringed upon as “these programs pose a direct and ongoing challenge to an established norm of international law.” The Special Rapporteur called on global governments to be more transparent and establish protections for privacy. He concurred with a conclusion from the United States Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, stating that allowing the government to violate rights in this way will “shift the balance of power between the state and its citizens.”
In July of this year the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also released a report condemning mass surveillance “ as a dangerous habit rather than an exceptional measure.” The High Commissioner also found the excuses offered by governments around the world fail to justify the existence of the programs. That report also found danger in the “collaboration and intelligence swapping” between countries which allow them to avoid domestic laws against surveillance and borrow collected information from each other.
As the concept of privacy becomes a thing of the past it has never been more important for awake individuals to become empowered and fight for the freedom to communicate without constant scrutiny from government agencies. If you care about protecting your privacy, as well as other rights, it might be time to get out from behind the computer screen and get involved.