U.S. to world: No privacy concerns here, move along

The U.S. government does not protect the privacy rights of non-citizens beyond its borders. That’s the message it will deliver at the U.N. Human Rights Council tomorrow in its official response to the 348 recommendations received during the second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the U.S. human rights record in Geneva.

In the once-every-four-years review, other countries made 16 recommendations that focus on privacy and surveillance as areas where the U.S. needs to improve its laws and practices. Access and other civil society groups called attention to these recommendations when we participated in the U.S. State Department consultation on the UPR in July.

The official response from the U.S. pointed to a few of those recommendations, and reiterated support for the right to privacy under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR article 17). Yet, the government insists that the Covenant, which the U.S. signed and ratified, does not impose any obligations to ensure the privacy rights of the world at large. (One might ask what the point of the international treaty is, if it applies only to your own nation.) That’s right — the government continues to be obstinate and unwilling to recognize that international law protects privacy across borders:

293,294,295,296,307. We support these recommendations insofar as they recommend respect for ICCPR Article 17, which applies to individuals within a state’s territory and subject to its jurisdiction. Our Constitution and laws contain appropriate protections for privacy of communications, consistent with our international human rights obligations, and we publicize our policies to the extent possible, consistent with national security needs. We frequently update and draft new laws, regulations, and policies to further protect individuals’ privacy.

It’s exceptionalism, and we’re still sick of it.

We also note that, when Congress passed the USA FREEDOM Act in June, it marked the first time in a generation that U.S. spying powers were curtailed. This hardly supports the government’s claim to “frequently update and draft new laws… to further protect individuals’ privacy.”

Another, real opportunity to improve U.S. surveillance practices impacting the human rights of non-citizens is coming in December 2017 with the sunset of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.  Stay tuned as Access and our partners push for reforms of this provision.

Image credit: Adapted from artwork by James Montgomery Flagg, 1920. Copyright expired, public domain.