Thursday, 24 April 2014

UN in your language

Every breath you take - I'll be watching you?

Photo: Flickr / jordi.martorell / 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

"1984" and big brother seemed like a joke not that long ago, but today electronic surveillance and its implication are being increasingly debated.

The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a consensus resolution strongly backing the right to privacy, deeply concerned that electronic surveillance, interception of digital communications and collection of personal data may negatively impact human rights.

The assembly calls on all countries take measures to end activities that violate this fundamental “tenet of a democratic society.” The Assembly underscored that the right to privacy is a human right and affirmed, for the first time, that the same rights people have offline must also be protected online.

Noting that while concerns about public security may justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information, the text states that governments must ensure full compliance with their obligations under international human rights law.

Earlier in the year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay spotlighted the right to privacy, using the case of United States citizen Edward Snowden to illustrate the urgent need to protect individuals who reveal human rights violations.

“Snowden's case has shown the need to protect persons disclosing information on matters that have implications for human rights, as well as the importance of ensuring respect for the right to privacy,” she said. “The right to privacy, the right to access to information and freedom of expression are closely linked. The public has the democratic right to take part in the public affairs and this right cannot be effectively exercised by solely relying on authorized information.”

Today, Britain has a CCTV camera for every 11 people. Surveillance, however, is not only limited to cameras in our streets, shops, schools or even hospitals.

The technological progress of the past decades has not been only about improved user-experience, but it has also created a windfall of new opportunities to gain unprecedented access to an increasingly large wealth of data exchanged constantly through a growingly complex communication galaxy.

Using powerful computers and software, many governments worldwide can nowadays easily scan and make sense of Web traffic of ordinary citizens; telephone conversations, email texts; video and images exchanged by users. Especially after the 2001 terrorist attack in New York and Washington, many governments of countries have introduced numerous new laws or tweaked existing ones to give themselves some legal basis to access these newly acquired powers.

Cutting-edge cases are plentiful authoritarian regimes, but well-established democracies unfortunately are not immune from this trend. The Snowden files are, in this respect, quite revealing of the shifting role of communication technologies in democratic societies.

Ms. Pillay has noted that while concerns about national security and criminal activity may justify the exceptional and narrowly-tailored use of surveillance programmes, “surveillance without adequate safeguards to protect the right to privacy actually risk impacting negatively on the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

While general assembly resolutions are non-binding, unlike resolutions of the 15-nation Security Council, those that enjoy broad international support carry significant moral and political weight.

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