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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

Caroline Wilson Palow's picture

Simply put, the National Security Agency is an intelligence agency. Its purpose is to monitor the world's communications, which it traditionally collected by using spy satellites, taps on cables, and placing listening stations around the world.

In 2008, by making changes to U.S. law, the U.S. Congress enabled the NSA to make U.S. industry complicit in its mission. No longer would the NSA have to rely only on international gathering points. It can now go to domestic companies who hold massive amounts of information on foreigners and order them to submit any information of interest to the NSA. This could include the content of communications, documents, photos, videos, or locations and other so-called metadata -- any information held by the companies. No warrant is required -- though there is a secret court review. But that review's primary purpose appears to be to provide assurances that Americans won't be targeted.

Mike Rispoli's picture

Privacy International is building a comprehensive resource of the world's surveillance and privacy laws, and we need your help. As part of the Global Surveillance Monitor project, recent tasks undertaken by volunteers have included: researching the right to privacy in constitutions around the world, locating and analyzing the EU's data retention laws, and researching global data protection regimes. We need additional help on two of these projects, in the form of: 

(1) identifying native-language versions of the world's constitutions, and
(2) further researching global data protection regimes. 

Each volunteer will have the opportunity to work alongside Privacy International's small, passionate team as we work to build a global privacy resource. We're looking for volunteers who are sufficiently interested in various aspects of the privacy field that they find enjoyable some of the 'grunt work' entailed in these tasks.

In the media
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Last November, the campaign group Privacy International provided a dossier of evidence against Gamma International to HM Revenue and Customs, urging it to investigate whether there had been any breach of the export control regime.

Anna Fielder's picture

Today, a coalition of civil rights groups, including Privacy International, launched a report and campaign website,, which calls on EU Members of Parliament (MEPs) to protect fundamental rights to privacy in a crucial vote next month. Concerned citizens and consumers are able to contact their MEPs directly via the website.

The story so far: early last year the European Commission published proposed revisions to the Union’s outdated legal framework on data protection. The proposals strengthen existing rights and attempt to ensure that legislation is more effectively enforced.  For the past year however, as previously reported on this blog, the proposals have been systematically eroded in their passage through the various committees of the European Parliament. 

In the media
Public Service Europe
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The latest attempt by the British government to control and monitor online communications is arguably the most frightening to date and could be copied by authoritarian regimes - warns Privacy International.

Carolin Moeller's picture

In November 2012 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in M.M v. the United Kingdom that retention and disclosure of a job applicant’s police records to potential employers was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court ruled that the practice cannot be regarded as being in accordance with the law. This judgment is a key step in establishing privacy rights over data held by the police, and comes at an important time when governments are rewriting the rules around data retention and disclosure practices in the criminal sphere. 

The case concerns M.M (the applicant) who abducted her grandson for three days in 2000 in order to prevent the girlfriend of her son from going back to Australia with the applicant’s grandson. The UK Director of Public Prosecutions considered the case as a family issue and a minor offence. He therefore administered a caution, instead of pursuing court proceedings. 

Carly Nyst's picture

Privacy International this week submitted stakeholder reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council1 about the human rights records of China, Senegal and Mexico. The reports, prepared in preparation with our partners in the respective countries, analyse the extent to which the right to privacy is respected and protected, and detail instances of privacy violations.

Nigel Waters's picture

There have been two rounds of meetings in 2012 of the OECD Committee for Information, Computer and Communications Policy (ICCP ) and some of its working parties – in May and October 2012, with further meeting of two working parties in December.  A ‘foresight forum’ on the ‘big data’ theme was held on 22 October. Civil society interest in the ICCP work programme is formalised through the Civil Society Information Society Advisory Council (CSISAC).

Dr Gus Hosein's picture

Communications surveillance is one of the most significant threats to personal privacy posed by the state. This is why many statements of fundamental rights across the world give special regard to the privacy of communications. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 12:

No one should be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks on his honour or reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interferences or attacks.

Emma Draper's picture

Privacy International asked lawyers, activists, researchers and hackers at Defcon 2012 about some of the debates that thrive at the intersection between law, technology and privacy. We also wanted to know why privacy matters to them, and what they thought the future of privacy looked like. This video is a result of those conversations. 

Featuring Cory Doctorow, Kade Crockford, Jameel Jaffer, Dan Kaminsky, Chris Soghoian, Marcia Hoffman, Moxie Marlinspike, Phil Zimmerman, Hanni Fakhoury and Eli O.

Many thanks to Michelle Leddon for creating this video.


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