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The State of Privacy 2014

In Geneva this week, an expert seminar will be held at the Human Rights Council on the right to privacy. To inform these discussions and debates, Privacy International is releasing our report, The State of Privacy 2014, which identifies recent accomplishments from around the world, and highlights significant challenges ahead for this right.

To read the full report, go here.

Promoting and defending the right to privacy in national and international policy discourses is always an interesting challenge. The right to privacy is fundamental to who we are as human beings, insulating our most intimate and personal thoughts and deeds, and acts as a critical safeguard against abuse and overreach by pow- erful institutions. It is perhaps for these reasons that the right has for so long been under attack by governments.

At the same time, privacy has received too little attention within the human rights community. Unlike many other human rights, privacy requires an understanding of law, ethics, technology, sociology, and policy. In many ways it is also subjected to prevailing forces and trends within these domains. Meanwhile significant changes in technology, coupled with trends in security policy, have given rise to previously unimaginable forms of surveil- lance. There has been a deluge of policy and technology changes across the world.

We have seen a gradual and yet significant change in this respect over the past five years, as new technologies have become ubiquitous in both the developed and developing world, and privacy issues have begun to surface in the public consciousness. Privacy International began working with organisations and academics in developing countries in 2008 to promote research and policy engagement around privacy. In this time we have seen privacy make a remarkable ascent up the political agenda in countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Privacy and data protection have gained currency in conversations about biometric technologies, identification systems, public health initiatives, development and humanitarian initiatives, and, of course, national security and law enforcement debates.

In June 2013 the entire discourse changed dramatically. The catalyst for the right’s recent rise to the top of international political and human rights agendas was last year’s series of revelations by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor. The importance of the Snowden revelations cannot be overstated, as they finally gave us the evidence of what we had most feared: that governments acting with scant attention to legal protections, are using invasive techniques to collect as much as they can, while compromising the systems that we all rely upon. Equally, these revelations accelerated, in leaps and bounds, the process of building public knowledge about global surveillance arrangements and capabilities. Awareness of, and interest in, the right to privacy is now unprecedented.

And so it was that 2013 became the year that privacy advocates finally gained traction in the halls of national parliaments and the United Nations General Assembly; that strong civil society coalitions were formed across borders and regions; that the world’s 101st data protection law was adopted (by South Africa). Privacy became, in the words of Human Rights Watch,‘the right whose time has come’.

All along, Privacy International has been working with its partners around the world to advance respect for privacy and data protection, conduct research to catalyse policy change, advocate for strong laws, and raise awareness about technologies that place privacy at risk. And we will continue to do so – while privacy is finally being afforded the priority it deserves, there are significant forces that continue to try to dismantle it in the name of national security, public safety, development, and economic interest.

This is a pivotal moment for the right to privacy across the globe, and we must continue to educate citizens and policy-makers about the need to fortify legal protections, develop regulatory frameworks, and erad- icate practices that unlawfully and disproportionately threaten privacy.