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U.N. Report Says Mass Surveillance Violates Human Rights

Friday, January 16th, 2015

The use of mass surveillance by the Western governments is not only enraging citizens and privacy advocates worldwide; it has even invited criticism from the United Nations. According to a report published by Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the surveillance conducted by intelligence agencies such as the NSA not only violates human rights of individuals being spied upon but also the international law. Pillay also added that since digital communications are more prone to interception and surveillance, a lot of governments are developing sophisticated technologies to facilitate such kinds of activities.

Addressing a press conference during the launch of the report “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age”, Pillay noted that international human rights law define a clear framework for the protection and promotion of right to privacy including protection from collection of data, interception of digital communications as well as domestic and foreign surveillance. However, due to absence of national laws, weak enforcement and oversight; there is a lack of accountability among the member states when it comes to illegal or arbitrary interferences in the right to privacy. She also informed that mass surveillance done by governments violates article 12 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights which clearly states that no one should be subjected to arbitrary interference in privacy or attacks upon his honor.

Pillay also questioned the practice of storing logs of metadata by the communication providers such as the ISPs. While criticizing the stance of the U.S. government that the metadata is not the same as the real data, she said that such practices are neither necessary nor appropriate. She claimed that since metadata gives a deep insight into an individual’s behavior, preferences and social relationships; it reveals far more information than the actual communication data itself. Pillay also notes in her report that the decreasing cost of storage and surveillance technologies plus the increasing amounts of digital footprints left by the people on the web have contributed significantly to mass surveillance.

During the press conference, Pillay also appreciated the work done by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Stressing that people who report human right violations should be protected from prosecution, she stated that the world owes a lot to Snowden for revealing the details about the NSA’s surveillance programs and his revelations highlight the need for greater transparency in the mass surveillance programs run by the governments.

The report highlights that while electronic surveillance conducted within the legal framework could indeed be an effective tool for intelligence gathering and law enforcement; reports of mass surveillance conducted by U.S. and U.K. have raised serious questions about the compatibility of such measures with the international law as well as highlighted the need for stronger safeguards to prevent human right violations.

Human rights groups who oppose the mass surveillance policies of the U.S. and U.K. governments have welcomed the findings of the report. However, the release of the report is unlikely to change the intelligence gathering practices of the security agencies. Most governments conduct mass surveillance in the name of national security and this stance is unlikely to change even after this scathing rebuke from the U.N.

January 16, 2015

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