World’s top human rights authority slams global surveillance practices in new report

On July 16, 2014, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its anticipated report, “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age.” Access praises the UN’s findings and urges world governments to take immediate steps to rein in overreaching surveillance programs.

The report’s scathing criticism of governments’ mass surveillance programs comes as the UK Parliament debates emergency legislation to permit sweeping mandatory data retention following a recent court setback. The OHCHR report was called for in a UN General Assembly resolution, which Access and other groups supported, addressing global concern about government surveillance activities around the world and their chilling impact on digital rights.

In its report, the OHCHR repeatedly cites the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, which provide a framework for assessing states’ human rights obligations when conducting surveillance. The Principles, which Access helped to draft, have been endorsed by more than 400 civil society organizations around the world. In her report today, the High Commissioner acknowledged that they can serve as interpretive guidance of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Other key takeaways from the report include:

1. Mass surveillance programs inherently violate privacy and should be presumed to be arbitrary and unlawful unless proven otherwise.

2. States should establish independent institutions to review surveillance programs (beyond courts which often “amounted…to an exercise in rubber-stamping”).

3. Surveillance programs must be “both necessary and proportionate to the specific risk being addressed.” Mandatory third-party data retention is neither.

4. The private sector is expected to “honour the principles of human rights to the greatest extent possible, and to be able to demonstrate their ongoing efforts to do so.”

5. Surveillance threatens more than just the right to privacy.

Access strongly supports the OHCHR’s findings and looks forward to the report’s presentation by the High Commissioner to the Human Rights Council at its next session in September, and to the General Assembly at its 69th session in October. “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age” is a crucial addition to the global public debate on the appropriate limits of state surveillance, at a time when governments have yet to enact meaningful reforms to their spying practices.