United Nations adopts resolution condemning unlawful government surveillance

News & Analysis

The United Nations today adopted an important resolution reaffirming the right to privacy in the digital age, condemning unlawful government mass surveillance and calling on member States to review their legislation and policies to ensure that they are in line with human rights law.

Despite efforts by the United States, the “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance, and other states to weaken its language, the resolution reflects some of the important findings contained in the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report of July 2014. It clearly states that any digital surveillance program must be compliant with the right to privacy, and that any interference with the right to privacy must not be arbitrary and must be conducted on the basis of a legal framework, which is publicly accessible, clear, precise, comprehensive and non-discriminatory.

This resolution comes just hours after the release of a report by UK's intelligence oversight committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee, which suggested that internet companies should snoop through user data for the 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.

Concretely, the resolution calls on states to to review their procedures, practices and legislation regarding surveillance to ensure that they are in line with their obligations under human rights law; to establish independent and effective oversight mechanisms over state surveillance's practices and to provide effective remedy to those individuals whose right to privacy has been violated by unlawful or arbitrary surveillance.

Significantly, the resolution also invites the UN Human Rights Council to consider the establishment of a special procedure on the right to privacy. The Council is expected to discuss the issue at its next ordinary session in March 2015.

Privacy International strongly supports the creation of such a mandate. A Special Rapporteur would play a critical role in developing common understandings and furthering a considered and substantive interpretation of the right to privacy across a variety of settings. There is strong demand for such a role, as international bodies are increasingly grappling with the right’s implications in a digital world.

The resolution adopted by the Third Committee today will be voted by the plenary of the UN General Assembly next month. Privacy International calls on all states to support such resolution and to support the creation of a special procedure on the right to privacy by the UN Human Rights Council.

Tomaso Falchetta, Legal Officer at Privacy International, said:

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."