BY BEN QUINN
A landmark resolution demanding privacy protection in the digital age and urging governments to offer redress to citizens targeted by mass surveillance has been approved by the UN general assembly’s human rights committee.
The resolution, which was adopted in the face of attempts by the US and others to water it down and which comes at a time when the UK government is calling for increased surveillance powers, had been put forward by Brazil and Germany in the wake of revelations by US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden about large-scale US surveillance.
However, diplomats reported that a reference to surveillance using metadata – information generated through the use of technology – as an intrusive act was removed in order to appease the US and its British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand allies in the so-called “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance.
Nevertheless, the text does still contain a precedent-setting mention of metadata, warning that “certain types of metadata, when aggregated, can reveal personal information and give an insight into an individual’s behaviour, social relationships, private preferences and identity.”
It also emphasises the role of the private sector in digital surveillance, saying, “business enterprises have a responsibility to respect human rights.”
While not naming any in particular, it calls on states to review their procedures, practices and legislation regarding the surveillance of communications, their interception and the collection of personal data, including mass surveillance, with a view to upholding the right to privacy under international human rights law.
Although are non-binding, such resolutions carry significant moral and political weight if they are supported by enough states.
The resolution was approved by the 193-member committee as a follow-up to a similar text adopted last year after Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, exposed a major spying programme by the agency.
Germany’s ambassador meanwhile called for the UN to create a special investigator post on the issue, warning that “without necessary checks, we risk turning into Orwellian states where every step by every citizen is monitored.”
The resolution, while will now goes before the full assembly in December, was also welcomed by individuals and campaigning organisations including Privacy International, which said that text was at odds with calls in Tuesday’s report by the British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee for internet companies to look through user data for state authorities.
“The resolution adopted today pushes back against this idea, stating that states must respect the right to privacy when they require disclosure of personal data from companies, as well as when they intercept digital communications of individuals or collect personal data,” the charity said.
Tomaso Falchetta, legal officer at Privacy International, added: “The adoption of a much-needed resolution on the right to privacy is a welcomed step. The resolution’s principles and recommendations would, if reflected in governments’ policies, go a long way to address some of the serious concerns related to state’s surveillance practices in violation of the right to privacy and other human rights.”
The text also urges the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) to consider the establishment of a special procedure for participating actively in the debate on such topics, including through the creation of a mandate for a special rapporteur.