The UN, Individual Privacy and the Surveillance State

Do citizens of every country have a right to privacy in the digital age? Or, more to the point: how can UN human rights offices and treaties guarantee individuals’ rights to privacy?

The UN General Assembly took a stab at this question last year when it passed a resolution that shifted national debates about states’ national security interests to an issue of international human rights.  The United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution A/RES/68/167 on December 18, 2013. Introduced by Germany and Brazil in the wake of the surveillance revelations made public by Edward Snowden, the resolution reaffirms the right to privacy for all global citizens, reaffirming language in existing international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The resolution’s novelty, however, lies in its discussion of the technological developments that have occurred since the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights decades ago, noting that increased technological capabilities likewise increase state data interception and collection capabilities, but do not lessen individuals’ right to privacy.

The resolution further called upon the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to draft and submit a report regarding the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of mass surveillance and the interception and collection of personal data. Drafting this report guarantees that the topic of mass surveillance will be discussed again at the General Assembly, and gives the OHCHR a microphone for shaping international dialogue surrounding data collection in the digital age.

The report, entitled “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age,” was released to the public on July 16, 2014. It provides a relevant condemnation of government surveillance around the world and describes the infringement that these efforts have upon individuals’ human rights. It also offers conclusive answers to some of the more contentious ongoing debates in privacy rights, such as over whether foreign nationals have the same right to privacy as the citizens of the countries engaging in data collection. Also significantly, it calls for transparency in surveillance laws, requiring them to be “sufficiently precise” and having “effective safeguards against abuse.” The report manages to move the discussion away from one about states’ national security to one of fundamental human rights, broadening the conversation to include all citizens of all countries – not just the governments of states that conduct mass surveillance.

Together, the OHCHR’s report and its future discussion at the General Assembly broadens the scope of this debate from states’ efforts to guarantee security to individuals’ guaranteed right to privacy under international law – an opinion that has rarely been heard in the debates over the past year. This is one of the key functions of the OHCHC; while the General Assembly is a forum of member states, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has a mandate to protect individuals’ human rights.

The report will be discussed in the General Assembly at its 69th session in October, and will be presented by the High Commissioner to the Human Rights Council at its next session in September, opening the floor to debate over how to bring surveillance programs into compliance with international human rights law. This debate, along with a UN resolution and an OHCHR report to reference, will place pressure on states to bring government programs and state contractors in compliance with international norms, and may be the first step in placing limits on state surveillance.