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Human Rights and Constitutional Protections

Human rights conventions and national constitutions almost universally call for the protection of the right to privacy – the challenge is ensuring that governments comply with this requirement, particularly with respect to new technologies and in countries that lack the rule of law.

The modern privacy benchmark at an international level can be found in Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specifically protects territorial and communications privacy. Numerous other international human rights treaties recognize privacy as a right: Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers, and Article 16 of the UN Convention of the Protection of the Child. Regional conventions that recognize the right to privacy includes Article 10 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Article 11 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 4 of the African Union Principles on Freedom of Expression, Article 5 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Article 21 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Constitutions regulate the relationship between citizens and the State and thus form the bedrock of civil, political and human rights protections. Constitutional protections of privacy have enabled human autonomy and curtailed significant government initiatives to interfere with individual rights in many countries around the world.

We work closely with international institutions to protect the right to privacy as enshrined in international conventions. We also work with groups in various countries to draw attention to how their national governments’ surveillance measures may not comply with international human rights, or with the language of their constitutions. We aim to help governments and legal institutions understand how privacy and technological change should be reflected in their constitutional frameworks.

Human Rights and Constitutional Protections


Our special report shining a light on the secretive Five Eyes alliance, where we lay out how the laws around which the Five Eyes are constructed violate human rights law, and argue the Five Eyes States owe a general duty not to interfere with communications that pass through their territorial borders.

Carly Nyst's picture

In response to a consultation being undertaken by the UN in accordance with December’s General Assembly resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age, Privacy International today called on the United Nations to recognise that mass surveillance is incompatible with human rights.

The submission to the Office of the High Commissioner to Human Rights confronts some of the biggest challenges to the right to privacy in the digital age, debunks some of the justifications put forth by the Five Eyes governments in response to the Snowden revelations, and argues that States owe human rights obligations to all individuals subject to their jurisdiction.

Edin Omanovic's picture

The market for surveillance technologies has expanded so much in recent years that oversight has been totally unable to keep up, which has led to devastating consequences in the lives of human rights defenders in repressive regimes around the world.

According to a new study released today by Privacy International, the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, and Digitale Gesellschaft, international efforts to oversee the trade in surveillance technologies are out-dated and urgently need to be updated in order to keep up in the digital age. Ensuring that export regulations are fit for purpose is a vital part of an overall strategy to ensure the surveillance industry does not continue to trample upon human rights and facilitate internal repression.

Emily Linnea Mahoney's picture

In the late eighteenth century in Germany, ‘anthropologist’ Johann Blumenbach published a degenerative hypothesis that linked cranium and facial profiles to supposed character traits and accordingly divided human beings into five different races: the Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American.1

In the 1870s, Alphonse Bertillon, a police officer in France, started a trend to identify criminals based on facial characteristics, alongside subsequent use of the camera to photograph and identify repeat offenders.

In the 1930s in Nazi Germany, IBM computer scientists devised an identification system in aid of the Third Reich’s attempt to systematically decimate entire populations.2

Dr Gus Hosein's picture

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.

Dr Gus Hosein's picture

Bulk metadata collection. The tapping of undersea fibre optic cables. Sabotaging internet security standards. Cyber Attacks. Hacking.

In almost every week since last summer, a new Snowden document has been released which details the growing surveillance powers and practices of intelligence agencies, each one astonishing in its own right. The documents have exposed the illegal activities and intrusive capabilities of the UK’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, which has secretly sought to exploit and control every aspect of our global communications systems.    

Anna Crowe's picture

While revelations about NSA mass surveillance dominated the news in late 2013, a less well-publicised scandal was engulfing the Australian intelligence services, which had just raided the offices of a lawyer representing the small nation of East Timor in an international case against Australia.

The case concerns allegations that Australia spied on East Timor’s cabinet during sensitive commercial negotiations over oil and gas revenues. If true, this was spying on the basis of greed, to exploit the unequal relationship between Australia, a rich, developed country, and East Timor, a newly established state emerging from decades of violence and oppression.

The case exposes shocking conduct by Australia – a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement - and aptly illustrates the need to reign in intelligence services to bring them within the international rule of law.

Mike Rispoli's picture

The reforms announced today, while positive in some respects, are completely inadequate to address the heart of the problem. Privacy International welcomes steps to minimise the data collected and retained on non-Americans, and the call to increase transparency around requests made to communications service providers. However, in the face of mass surveillance, unaccountable intelligence sharing, arbitrary expansions of the definition of ’national security’, and debased encryption standards, all of which fundamentally threaten the very fabric of American democratic institutions, the Obama administration has chosen to pursue reforms that serve only to tinker around the edges a grave and endemic problem. 

Caroline Wilson Palow's picture

Privacy International's partner organisation, Bytes for All, has filed a complaint against the Government, decrying the human rights violations inherent in such extensive surveillance and demonstrating how the UK's mass surveillance operations and its policies have a disproportionate impact on those who live outside the country.

Bytes for All, a Pakistan-based human rights organization, filed its complaint in the UK Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the same venue in which Privacy International lodged a similar complaint last July.

Anna Crowe's picture

The following piece originally appeared on Linda Raftree's "Wait...What" blog, a site focusing on bridging community development and technology.

New technologies hold great potential for the developing world, and countless development scholars and practitioners have sung the praises of technology in accelerating development, reducing poverty, spurring innovation and improving accountability and transparency.

Worryingly, however, privacy is presented as a luxury that creates barriers to development, rather than a key aspect to sustainable development. This perspective needs to change.


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