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United Nations Passes Resolution To Protect Privacy

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Days after condemning the mass surveillance practices of its member states, the United Nations has passed a landmark resolution that demands protection of privacy for ordinary people. The resolution, which was approved by United Nations’ human rights committee, urged the governments to respect the privacy of their subjects in the age of digital communication as well as address the privacy concerns of the citizens targeted by surveillance. After getting this crucial vote, the resolution will now go before the United Nations General Assembly for approval in the month of December.

The resolution was brought forward by Brazil and Germany who were both victims of the surveillance conducted by the US intelligence agency NSA. The resolution saw large scale participation from member states who condemned the surveillance practices of US and UK intelligence agencies. Demanding an end to intra state and cross border surveillance, the committee asked member states to put an end to human right violations that accompanied such mass surveillance practices. While most member states supported the resolution, it was not surprising to see that none of the countries that are a part of “Five Eyes” alliance (U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand) voted in its favor.

The resolution is also special since it specifically talks about metadata in addition to actual surveillance data. The committee warned that while metadata does not contain actual data about an individual, aggregation of certain types of metadata can reveal a significant amount of information about a person’s behavior, preferences, identity and social relationships. A lot of intelligence agencies defend their surveillance practices by saying that collection of metadata is not the same as collecting of actual surveillance data but the resolution has made it clear that the world body considers collection of metadata as a human rights violation as well.

The committee has also asked private organizations to refrain from becoming enablers of large scale surveillance. While noting that technological innovations have played a significant role in shaping communications, the world body stated that enterprises have a moral obligation to respect human rights. The stance of the committee is crucial because even though tech companies play a significant role in mass surveillance, they often do not have to face consequences of their actions.

Through the resolution, the human rights committee has asked member states to review their legislation, procedures and practices that govern mass surveillance within their borders. The body also urged the states to uphold the international human rights law while implementing surveillance of communications and collection of personal data. In addition, Germany’s ambassador called for the creation a special post that can investigate claims of mass surveillance.

The passing of the resolution marks a significant victory for ordinary citizens and privacy advocates. Although such resolutions are not binding, they carry significant importance especially if they are supported by enough members. Privacy advocates believe that if the recommendations made in the resolution are implemented by member states and private organizations, it would go a long way in addressing the privacy concerns and human right violations that are associated with surveillance procedures deployed by the governments.

December 9, 2014

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