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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

Opinion piece
Ronald Deibert's picture

Gradually and almost imperceptibly, we have immersed ourselves in a global hypermedia environment. This environment increasingly contains everything we do: we work, we play, we organize within it. Our lives have been, in essence, turned inside out and dispersed in endless ethereal clouds - multi-verses - that follow us around in extra dimensionality. “Big Data” refers to the endless digital grains of sand we produce as we move, think and act. Internet Service Providers, web hosting companies, cloud and mobile providers, massive telecommunications and financial companies, and a host of new digital market organisms digest and process unimaginably large volumes of information about each and every one of us. Unsurprisingly, a massive cyber industrial complex has sprouted around the commercial exploitation of these multi-verses.

Opinion piece
Mathias Vermeulen's picture

In 1999, a young technology company called Google was brainstorming a mission statement for the corporation. A series of core principles were written on a blackboard, until one employee summarized them as ‘Don’t be evil’. The slogan became a rallying cry for Google’s fans, and a way to distinguish it from other companies, but what does it actually mean for a technology company to avoid 'evil’?

This is a question of increasing importance at a time when certain governments depend on technologies to monitor the movements and communications of their inhabitants and control access to information. Western technologies have been actively used for these purposes by repressive regimes like Syria and Iran.

Press release

Privacy International’s Director-General Simon Davies has today written to Creativity Software CEO Richard Lee urging him to “follow suit” after surveillance technology company Area SpA withdraws their business from Syria.

In the letter, Mr Davies reiterated the seven questions he asked in his letter of 10th November - questions that Richard Lee has so far failed to answer. He asked whether Creativity has had dealings in other Middle Eastern and North African countries, and requested details of the nature of the technology sold to Iran, such as the worth of contracts, the particulars of software and hardware and whether Creativity's technicians have since visited the country. Mr Davies wrote:

Your answers will be crucial in preventing future harm, and in mitigating the harm your company has already done by selling such dangerous technology to a regime that shows as little concern for the lives, liberty and personal dignity of its citizens as Iran."

Press release

Privacy International today received an email from Saul Olivares, Sales and Marketing Director of Creativity Software, in response to the letter we sent to Creativity CEO Richard Lee yesterday.

Mr Olivares directed PI to an attached statement, in which Creativity stated that it was:

…proud to be a supplier of world class technology to MTN, in Iran and other countries. MTN is a company with the vision of being the leading telecommunications provider in emerging markets, with an avowed mission to speed up the progress of the emerging world by enriching the lives of the people within it.

In the media
Washington Post
Publication date: 
Sari Horwitz
Original story link: 

Eric King of Privacy International, a London-based nonprofit group that challenges government surveillance, said the company’s products can enable a government to monitor the Internet activity of large numbers of people... “Hundreds of Western companies are pitching these kinds of surveillance technologies to some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, turning a blind eye to the ways in which these dangerous technologies are being used to monitor and oppress. Stricter regulation of this trade is desperately needed.”

Nighat Dad's picture

The Internet is becoming essential to modern life in Pakistan. These days, the loss of network access, whether for telephones or internet connectivity, soon starts to affect people's ability to do business or interact socially - and in the longer term is directly affects citizens' self-expression and self-determination. This is why we all saw such serious attempts by the governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to cut off their people's access to the Internet.

In recent years the Government of Pakistan has repeatedly placed restrictions on the use of the Internet. Technically mediated services have been often subjected to restrictions ranging from government regulation, intervention, censorship and outright blocking.

Dr Gus Hosein's picture

PI just received a response from Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland of the Council of Europe (CoE) stating that the CoE is refusing to start an investigation on the collection and storage of citizens biometric data by member states. On 31 March an international alliance of organisations and individuals lodged a petition calling on him to start such an indepth survey under Article 52 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In his answer, received this week, Secretary General Jagland mainly points at the CoE Resolution 1797, adopted in March 2011. He does stress the need to take steps to ensure that relevant existing legal frameworks, including European dataprotection Convention 108, be enhanced and modernised. However, the Secretary General doesn’t explain his refusal to investigate the legality of the current national biometric schemes himself. Instead Mr. Jagland refers to various other Council of Europe bodies, such as the Parliamentary Assembly, the commissioner for Human Rights and the Consultative Committee of Convention 108.

Dr Gus Hosein's picture

An international alliance of organisations and individuals from 27 countries has lodged a petition calling on the Council of Europe to start an indepth survey on the collection and storage of biometric data by member states.

European governments are increasingly demanding storage of biometric data (fingerprints and facial scans) from individuals. These include storage on contactless 'RFID' chips in passports and/or ID cards. Some are going even further by implementing database storage e.g. France, Lithuania and the Netherlands.

The alliance of more than 80 signatories has asked Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland of the Council of Europe to urgently request the countries involved to explain under Article 52 ECHR whether their national law on this subject is in line with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.

Dr Gus Hosein's picture

Not since the 1990s has the internet been so exciting. With its use by political activists and journalists around the world, we can now again entertain the discussions that the internet brings freedom. Digital data traverses routers with little regard to national boundaries and so traditional constraints not longer apply. So it is no surprise that protestors on the streets of Tehran or Cairo are using the internet to organise. We like to believe in the freedom of the internet again, after the rush of "freedom" in the 1990s was replaced with "free downloads" provided by file-sharing and "free services" provided by internet companies.

Our dreamy thoughts of freedom are roughly awoken when these political activists and journalists are hunted down by their governments, imprisoned or worse. Could this wonderful internet actually make these political movements vulnerable? Indeed, it does and it is our fault. Our technologies are intentionally designed with vulnerabilities embedded within, as we design our technologies for ease of use rather than caution and protection.

Privacy International's picture

Last week the German Federal Constitutional Court overturned a law on the retention of telecommunications data for law enforcement purposes, stating that it posed a "grave intrusion" to personal privacy and must be revised. In their ruling the judges found that the law stands in contradiction to the basic right of private correspondence and does not protect the principle of proportionality, as it fails to balance the need to provide security with the right to privacy. All data on telephone calls, email and internet traffic as well as on the location of mobile phones that have so far been stored by telecommunication providers have to be deleted immediately.

According to the Federal Constitutional Court the communications retention law does not provide adequate protection of personal data and it does not make sufficiently clear what it would be used for. The case was originally brought to the court in 2008, by a record number of almost 35.000 people, including the current Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser –Schnarrenberger.


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