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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

Dr Gus Hosein's picture

The Home Office has been planning a grab for new communications surveillance powers since 2006; today, the Draft Communications Data Bill established in legislative language their ambitions.

Yes, as they will point out, it isn't their the full scope of their ambitions. In 2008, under Labour, they proposed the idea of a vast centralised database of the nation's communications data. In 2009 they abandoned the idea of a central database. Since then, a new government has been elected, consisting of two political parties that opposed both the 2008 and 2009 versions.  In the Coalition Agreement, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems promised: "We will end the storage of e-mail and internet records without good reason."

But that didn't work out so well. Today the government announced an enormous expansion of the communications surveillance regime, a project that will cost approximately £1.8bn over 10 years and is almost identical to Labour's 2009 proposals.

Emma Draper's picture

In February 2012, the PI team travelled to India, Bangladesh and Hong Kong to meet with our local partners in the region and speak at four conferences they had organized. For more information on the trip, please read our blog. We also got the chance to interview our partners in India and Bangladesh on the privacy issues facing them at the moment - this video is the result of those conversations. 

Many thanks to Michelle Leddon for creating this video.
In the media
The Observer
Publication date: 
Jamie Doward and Rebecca Lewis
Original story link: 

Privacy International said it had visited international arms and security fairs and identified at least 30 UK companies that it believes have exported surveillance technology to countries including Syria, Iran, Yemen and Bahrain. A further 50 companies exporting similar technology from the US were also identified. Germany and Israel were also identified as big exporters of surveillance technology, in what is reportedly a £3bn a year industry.

Last month Privacy International asked 160 companies about sales of equipment to repressive regimes. So far fewer than 10 have written back to deny selling to nations with poor human rights records. The campaign group warns: "The emerging information and communications infrastructures of developing countries are being hijacked for surveillance purposes, and the information thereby collected is facilitating unlawful interrogation practices, torture and extrajudicial executions."...

"By the time the embargo is in place the ship has sailed," said Eric King, head of research at Privacy International. "Our research shows the idea that this is not a British problem is wrong. We need governments to act now. In a few years this equipment will need to be updated; these countries don't have the technical expertise to do it, so this is something the UK needs to be aware of and to take action against now."


Privacy International, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Media and Communications Studies (CMCS), are pleased to present the study "European Privacy and Human Rights (EPHR) 2010", funded by the European Commission's Special Programme "Fundamental Rights and Citizenship," 2007-2013.

EPHR investigates the European landscape of national privacy/data protection laws and regulations as well as any other laws or recent factual developments with and impact on privacy. The study consists of 33 targeted reports, an overview presenting a comparative legal and policy analysis of main privacy topics and a privacy ranking for all the countries surveyed.

Privacy International has conducted an analysis of the country reports. Our research team has taken additional information from other sources to provide the summary information below for each country, noting the key developments and identifying the state of affairs.

In the media
Deutsche Welle
Publication date: 
Cyrus Farivar
Original story link: 

Yet Eric King, of Privacy International, an advocacy group in London, cautioned that the ban might not go far enough.

"For a country like Iran in which all companies administering national infrastructure are effectively controlled by the state, it is still unclear whether the ban on exports of equipment and software "intended for use…by the Iranian authorities" goes far enough," he wrote in an e-mail sent to DW.

"Until such time as the Iranian government corrects its appalling attitude to human rights, there can be no guarantee that any surveillance technology exported to the country will not be used to facilitate torture, execution and unlawful detention."

Press release

The Council of the European Union today reinforced restrictive measures on EU exports to Iran, banning "exports of equipment and software intended for use in the monitoring or interception of internet and telephone communications by the Iranian authorities".

The Council also added 17 people responsible for grave human rights violations to the list of those subject to a travel ban and asset freeze. An existing ban on equipment for use in internal repression was transferred from the sanctions regime addressing the Iranian nuclear programme to the regime addressing human rights abuses, for reasons of coherence.


This report compares the emerging surveillance policies from Europe and the United States.

We find that in each case the EU is implementing surveillance powers well beyond those in U.S., and with far less openness and debate over these measures. The only area in which the U.S. matched the EU for closed discussion and lack of public debate is on matters that affect non-U.S. citizens and non-U.S. companies. This is particularly the case over the use of technology at borders. In the U.S. there was little debate about the installation of the US-VISIT system; and in Europe, as with most other surveillance policies, there are few discussions on the direction of these policies and little debate.

This report concludes that the two policy blocs can learn more from each other than how to expand powers,. They may also share in some lessons learned from the mistakes in each others' processes and policies. Perhaps this could lead to renewed attention to safeguards and protections from abuse.

A shorter version of this report was published by the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe's Representative on Freedom of the Media.


The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism published his report on privacy and anti-terrorism powers. PI staff members advised the Special Rapporteur on this project.

The report identifies the policy trends around the world, the extraneous powers sought by some governments, the use and banning of technologies to enhance surveillance, and the abuses that have arisen.

This report is only available as a PDF, and is also available on the UNOHCHR website:  announcement and report.

The Special Rapporteur makes the following recommendations.


This report reviews the legal landscape across Latin America with regards to emerging anti-terrorism laws since September 2001. Terrorism is not new to Latin America and many countries had existing legal frameworks. But the influence of international resolutions and conventions, and the temptation of granting greater powers to the law enforcement agencies led to significant new laws. 

Latin American states have endeavoured to adapt existing law enforcement mechanisms, and develop new mechanisms, to investigate, suppress and punish terrorism, on a domestic level and internationally.

This report is only available in PDF.


[This report was written for the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe's Representative on Freedom of the Media and was included in the 2004 book 'Future Challenges of the Information Society', pp242-263.]


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