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The UN High Commissioner Says Privacy Is a Human Right

Publicly calling out the US and UK over surveillance could be a step in the right direction.
Grumpy cat-themed anti-NSA sign, via Flickr

A significant development in the debate over the human right to privacy and freedom from surveillance recently occurred at the United Nations. Navi Pillay, a South African human rights lawyer and the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, publicly defined the right to electronic privacy and freedom from surveillance as a human right.

Pillay said in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council on September 9:


The broad scope of national security surveillance regimes in countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, and the impact of these regimes on individuals’ right to privacy and other human rights, continues to raise concern. Laws and policies must be adopted to address the potential for dramatic intrusion on individuals’ privacy which have been made possible by modern communications technology… While national security concerns may justify the exceptional and narrowly tailored use of surveillance, I would urge all States to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place against security agency overreach and to protect the right to privacy and other human rights.

These comments are significant because—in the US at least—the right to privacy and freedom from unwarranted surveillance is most often understood and debated within the context of the Fourth Amendment. Human rights and the abuses thereof, on the other hand, often receive attention from the media and state and diplomatic officials in matters of war crimes and other atrocities. Surveillance and data mining, by definition, are nonviolent, but they are still a gross exercise of power and byproduct of the state's innate tendency toward paranoia.

That Pillay would bring this up before the UN, calling out in such public fashion the US and UK, could be seen as a step in the right direction. Slow, yes, but a constructive step nonetheless. Whether or not Pillay's address will influence the Human Rights Council to act is another matter altogether. At the very least the overwhelming international sentiment has officially been registered before the UN.

Pillay, however, should have moved beyond a vague call for "adequate safeguards" to prevent "security agency overreach." The fact is that the US already has its safeguards, and yet the NSA's PRISM and other dragnet surveillance programs are in operation both internationally and domestically.

But, as EFF notes, "One part of the potential solution to those concerns will be officially launched this Friday in a Human Rights Council side-meeting on digital privacy." Organized by Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, and Hungary, the side-meeting will feature speeches by free expression, privacy, and human rights activists. At the meeting, EFF International Rights Director Katitza Rodriguez and Access Policy Counsel Fabiola Carrion are expected to introduce the 13 “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance."

The 13 principles are: Legality, Legitimate Aim, Necessity, Adequacy, Proportionality, Competent Judicial Authority, Due Process, User Notification (that should go over well with governments), Transparency, Public Oversight, Integrity of Communications & Systems, and Safeguards for International Cooperation (that will elicit some lulz from US officials, to be sure).

Head over to Necessary & Proportionate to get the full run-down on the 13 principles, and stay tuned for this Friday's results.