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Submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression: Study on Telecommunications and Internet Access Sector

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Privacy International welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Special Rapporteur’s next report to the Human Rights Council in June 2017, and to engage with the ongoing project on freedom of expression in the telecommunications and internet access sector. This submission focuses on “direct access” by State actors into networks and services provided by Telecommunications and Internet Service Providers (“Telcos and ISPs) and associated companies, and in turn their relevant policies and practices.

Direct access broadly describes situations where law enforcement and intelligence agencies have a direct connection to telecommunications networks in order to obtain digital communications content and data (both mobile and internet), often without prior notice or judicial authorisation and without the involvement and knowledge of the Telco or ISP that owns or runs the network. Direct access poses both legal and technical challenges and is a practice that has a defined link to arbitrary and abusive practices that impact freedom of expression and privacy. 

Direct access is not a new issue. Privacy International have highlighted concerns since the 1990s about the increasing trend of law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies having direct access to personal information- not just communications but also data such as Passenger Name Records (PNRs) and financial transactions.

As direct access of communications can technically happen at various points throughout a telecommunications network, we welcome the Special Rapporteur’s focus on companies throughout the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector beyond Telcos, ISPs and Network Equipment Providers (or vendors), a number of which are already engaged in the business and human rights debate. As the Special Rapporteur has identified, it is necessary to broaden the focus to other parts of the sector that potentially have an impact on human rights such as Internet exchange points (IEPs) and submarine cable providers, which at present do not engage in the business and human rights debate.

In the age of big data and the “internet of things”, more devices are connected to the internet and generate data, including personal data, which needs protecting. Therefore, it is important to continue to tackle the issue of direct access as it is in danger of broadening unchecked beyond traditional communication devices.