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Home Human Rights Archive for category "Right To Privacy/Family Life"

OHCHR Publishes Report on Surveillance and Privacy in the Digital Age

Published on July 18, 2014        Author: 

Readers will recall that in its resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age the UN General Assembly had requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report for the next GA session on the various issues raised by mass electronic surveillance and the human right to privacy (see here for our previous coverage). An advance edited version of that report (A/HRC/27/37) is now available here. The report is rich, thoughtful and very much pro-privacy in the surveillance context, albeit not in a blind, fundamentalist way. It reaffirms that the right to privacy, as set out in Article 17 ICCPR or Article 8 ECHR, provides a framework within which the legality of surveillance measures needs to be assessed. While it acknowledges the legitimate governmental interests that surveillance may serve, it finds the existing institutional and legal arrangements in many states wanting and in need of further study and reform. Here are some of the highlights:

- It is important to consider linkages with other possible human rights violations, e.g. the collection of intelligence through surveillance that is later used for an unlawful targeted killing (para. 14).

- Interferences with the privacy of electronic communication cannot be justified by reference to some supposedly voluntary surrender of privacy on the Internet by individual users (para. 18).

- Collection of communications metadata can be just as bad in terms of privacy interference as the collection of the content of the communication (para. 19).

- Because of the chilling effect of surveillance: ‘The very existence of a mass surveillance programme thus creates an interference with privacy.’ (para. 20).

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The Court of Justice of EU’s Judgment on the “Right to be Forgotten”: An International Perspective

Published on May 20, 2014        Author: 

In its judgment published on 13 May in the case C-131/12 Google Spain AEPD and Mario Costeja Gonzalez, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), Grand Chamber, recognized a “right to be forgotten” with regard to Internet search engine results. Unfortunately, the judgment has important international implications that the Court did not sufficiently consider. In this post, I will put aside the issues of EU data protection law that the judgment raises, and focus instead on its implications for the rights of individuals to use the Internet as a global communications medium. It is important to note that application of the judgment extends beyond particular search engine providers to include any “provider of content which consists in finding information published or placed on the internet by third parties, indexing it automatically, storing it temporarily and, finally, making it available to internet users according to a particular order of preference” (paragraph 21), which could include Internet archives, social media, news crawler services, and many other types of online services.

The plaintiff in the case complained to the Spanish Data Protection Agency (DPA) against a Spanish newspaper and Google, stating that a Google search brought up a link to the newspaper containing irrelevant information about him, and requesting that the newspaper be required to remove or alter the pages and that Google be required to remove the data from the search results. The DPA found against Google, which then appealed to the Spanish Audiencia Nacional (National High Court). The Spanish court referred the case to the CJEU. On June 25, 2013, Advocate-General Jääskinen recommended that the Court find that it had jurisdiction over Google; that in its role as a search engine provider, Google was a data processor rather than a controller; and that the EU Data Protection Directive 95/46 does not contain a right to be forgotten that could entitle the plaintiff to have his data deleted from search engine results.

In its judgment, the Court differed in several important points from the Advocate-General’s opinion, and reached the following conclusions:

–Google’s branches in the EU are subject to the national data protection law of the EU member states where they are located, since they are “inextricably linked” to the activities of the Google headquarters in the US by virtue of Google Spain selling advertising space on the search engine provided by Google Inc, even if the actual processing is carried out in the US (paragraphs 42-60).

–Search engines are “data controllers” and as such are independently responsible for the personal data they retrieve, store, and display from websites (paragraphs 21-41).

–Under the Directive, there exists a limited right to have search engines delete material from search results (i.e., a “right to be forgotten”), regardless of whether the material indexed was posted legally or whether it is accurate (paragraphs 62-99). Read the rest of this entry…

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More on the UN and Surveillance and Privacy in the Digital Age

Published on April 17, 2014        Author: 

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is now conducting a consultation for the purpose of preparing the High Commissioner’s report pursuant to the UN General Assembly’s resolution on privacy in the digital age. Some of the major privacy/human rights NGOs have now made their submissions public: here is the paper submitted jointly by Privacy International, Access, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Article 19, Association for Progressive Communications, Human Rights Watch, and the World Wide Web Foundation; and here is the submission by the Center for Democracy and Technology. The NGOs argue, inter alia, that Article 17 ICCPR applies to (extraterritorial) surveillance activities and that the bulk collection of communications data is inherently disproportionate.

UPDATE: All of the submissions are now available on the OHCHR website.

Quoting verbatim from the GA’s resolution, the Human Rights Council has also decided to convene a panel on the right to privacy in the digital age at its 27th session, to be held in September. The multi-stakeholder panel is to discuss ‘the promotion and protection of the right to privacy in the digital age in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or the interception of digital communications and the collection of personal data, including on a mass scale, also with a view to identifying challenges and best practices, taking into account the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights requested by the General Assembly in its resolution 68/167.’

Readers may also recall that a few months ago I did a series of posts on human rights and foreign surveillance. I’ve since written up a more developed and expanded article based on that series, which takes into account developments as of March 2014, including the Koh memos and the concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee on the US fourth periodic report. The article will be published in the Harvard International Law Journal, and the draft is now available on SSRN. Comments are as always welcome; the abstract is below the fold.

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The dilution of the family in human rights: Comments on Vallianatos and other ECHR cases on “family life”

Published on March 25, 2014        Author: 

In the decision of Vallianatos and others v. Greece (No. 29381/09 and 32684/09) delivered on 7th November 2013, the European Court of Human Rights (the Court) considered that two adult men living separately should benefit from the protection granted to families in the particular case where they maintained a stable homosexual relationship. On this occasion the Court affirmed that, from now on, when a European State legislates as regards the family, it “in its choice of meansmust necessarily take into account developments in society and changes in the perception of social and civil-status issues and relationships, including the fact that there is not just one way or one choice when it comes to leading one’s family or private life” (§ 84). The Court thus ensures that European States adapt their legislation to (its own perception of) the evolution of morals. This decision marks a new stage in the accelerated dissolution of the legal definition of the family which from a biological and institutional reality has become a concept which is flexible to the point of inconsistency.

The family constituted by marriage and/or children

The European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention) protects “private and family life” in the same provision (Article 8), along with the home and correspondence. However, the Court has progressively distinguished the protection of private life from that of family life. Private life is a broad concept which does not lend itself to an exhaustive definition. The essential goal of the protection afforded by it is to protect the individual from the arbitrary interference of the authorities and it may in addition create positive obligations inherent in an effective “respect” for private life (Olsson v. Sweden, No. 10465/83, 24.03.1988). As for the protection of family life, it focuses primarily on the relationship between children and their parents. Read the rest of this entry…

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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights, Part 5: The Substance of an Extraterritorial Right to Privacy

Published on November 29, 2013        Author: 

This post is part of a series: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Between Utopia and Apology, Universality and Effectiveness

My previous posts have all dealt with the threshold question of whether individuals subject to surveillance overseas should be entitled to human rights in the first place. This post will deal with the substance of the right to privacy in this context, if the right is found to apply. Though my main focus has been on the threshold question of extraterritorial application, and though that question is conceptually distinct from the substantive content of any given right, there is a direct connection as a matter of policy between the inquiries on jurisdiction and on the merits. The more difficult, complex or politically controversial the merits question of whether the substantive right has been violated, the greater the temptation to say that the right simply does not apply. Courts in particular frequently resort to dismissing cases in limine even while furtively casting an eye on the merits, in order to avoid grappling with the merits openly. One cannot really reduce arbitrariness in resolving threshold questions without looking at what the consequences of doing so would be down the line.

I have argued in that regard that the case law on the extraterritorial application of human rights treaties, particularly that of the European Court, straddles a Koskenniemian divide between universality and effectiveness. On one hand we want to follow the moral logic of universality and protect human beings no matter where they are located; on the other we see the enormous practical and political difficulties of doing so. An expansive approach to extraterritoriality can thus be criticized as utopian, as presenting a normative vision which has nothing to do with the real world, whereas a restrictive approach can be dismissed as pure apology for unbridled, arbitrary and limitless exercise of state power which we would never accept domestically.

A persuasive argument regarding the threshold of extraterritorial application hence must also look at the substance and attempt to strike a better balance between universality and effectiveness. It must provide states and courts with sufficient flexibility in the extraterritorial context and not impose unrealistic burdens and restrictions with which they could never comply. Resistance to extraterritorial application flows in large part from the fact that most human rights case law was built in times of normalcy, and the fear that applying this case law to external situations would be rigid and inflexible. However, most human rights, including privacy, analytically employ balancing tests that can be used less strictly if this is justified by the circumstances. (Compare this, for example, with the rigidity of the US Fourth Amendment warrant requirement for searches and seizures, which even in the domestic context leads to narrow interpretations of what is a search or seizure).

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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights, Part 4: Do Human Rights Treaties Apply to Extraterritorial Interferences with Privacy?

Published on November 28, 2013        Author: 

This post is part of a series: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5.

Bearing in mind the three models of extraterritorial application that I outlined in my previous post, the only model which provides an easy, clear answer is the third one. If the negative obligation to respect the right to privacy is territorially unlimited, then any interference with this right in any place in the world would implicate the ICCPR or the ECHR. This is not to say that such interferences, whether through a mass surveillance program or a targeted one, would necessarily be illegal. Rather, any such interference would need to be substantively justified within the analytical framework of human rights treaties (i.e. is the interference prescribed by law; does it serve a legitimate aim; is it proportionate to that aim). No threshold question of jurisdiction would arise, and just like with purely internal surveillance the analysis would need to be one on the merits. But again, this is also not to say that on the merits internal and external surveillance would need to be treated equally in every respect – more on this in my next, and final, post.

The third model provides a clear answer on the threshold question of applicability, but also one that is very broad and immediately leads to examination of the merits which carries with it its own uncertainties. This is precisely why the third model may not be appealing to those actors, be they governments, secret services, courts, or what have you, who would want to avoid the difficulties of a merits analysis or the constrains of human rights treaties altogether.

I will thus proceed to situate the following discussion within the confined of the more established spatial and personal models. But as soon as I do so, we will see how we run into uncertainty, complexity, and potential for arbitrariness. This is at least partly due to the fact that technological advances in obtaining information have rendered the exercise of manual, physical power over individuals unnecessary or less necessary. While privacy law in the information era frequently developed by analogy to old-school physical searches or interferences, be it in domestic systems (say under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution) or in international human rights law, there comes a point at which such analogies are no longer feasible or are outright misleading.

But such analogies can be a useful starting point. I will now outline some scenarios of possible interferences with privacy through searches, interception, or surveillance, starting with the more physical and ending with the most virtual. Under existing case law all of these actions by state agents against individuals could in principle count as interferences with their privacy rights under either the ECHR or the ICCPR if these actions were to occur on the state’s own territory. The problem I want to get at is jurisdiction, i.e. whether human rights treaties would apply in the first place if the state engaged in such conduct extraterritorially under either the spatial or the personal model, and whether distinctions should be made in terms of jurisdiction between the physical and the virtual methods of gathering information.

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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights, Part 3: Models of Extraterritorial Application

Published on November 27, 2013        Author: 

This post is part of a series: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5.

In this post I will provide a brief outline of the (often conflicting and confusing) case law on the meaning of the concept of state jurisdiction in human rights treaties. I will examine the spatial model of jurisdiction, which conceptualizes it as effective overall control of an area, the personal model of jurisdiction as authority and control over individuals, and a third model which distinguishes between the positive and negative obligations of states under human rights treaties. My next post will proceed to apply these models to several possible factual scenarios of overseas surveillance.

The European Court has produced by far the most case law on extraterritorial application, both in quantity and in variety. No case that I am aware of, however, deals directly with the question of extraterritorial application of the Convention to foreign searches, interceptions, or surveillance. The issue is thus one very much of first impression. The jurisprudence of the Human Rights Committee, on the other hand, is not as conflicting or contradictory, even if it is less varied. The Committee has also generally been more generous towards applicants than the European Court; unless I am mistaken, there is no case in which the Committee rejected the communication of a person who made an arguable case that his or her rights were violated extraterritorially on the grounds that this person was not subject to the jurisdiction of the relevant state. (The Committee’s generosity can be explained, in my view, by the fact that it does not necessarily need to live with the consequences of an expansive approach in the same way as the Strasbourg Court, where the stakes are higher because of the greater robustness of the regime and the binding nature of the Court’s decisions).

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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights, Part 2: Interpreting the ICCPR

Published on November 26, 2013        Author: 

This post is part of a series: Intro, Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Comparing the ICCPR and the ECHR

The scope of many human rights treaties is at least partly determined by how we interpret their jurisdiction clauses, and here we can observe some important differences. I will limit myself in this analysis in looking solely at the ICCPR and the ECHR, the former because most states engaging in overseas surveillance will be parties to it (like the US), the latter because of the relative strength and influence of its enforcement mechanisms and the European Court of Human Rights’ extensive (and conflicting) jurisprudence on questions of territorial application.

Article 2(1) ICCPR provides that ‘[e]ach State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant,’ whereas Article 1 ECHR stipulates that the ‘High Contracting Parties shall secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section I of this Convention.’ The main difference between the two provisions is the ICCPR’s reference to territory, but there is also the ICCPR’s distinction between the obligations to respect and to ensure, while the ECHR speaks of the obligation to respect in the heading of Article 1, but only of the obligation to secure in the actual text. (I will return to the distinction between positive and negative obligations later in this series). The magic word in both texts is (state) ‘jurisdiction’, but the question arises whether the ICCPR’s seemingly conjunctive reference to territory admits of any extraterritorial application, and if it does whether the interpretations of the ICCPR and the ECHR should align or not.

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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights, Part 1: Do Foreigners Deserve Privacy?

Published on November 25, 2013        Author: 

This post is part of a series: Intro, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

One robust feature of US legal discourse is an emphasis on citizenship as a basis for fundamental rights. This is true not only of case law (viz. the US Supreme Court’s holding in Verdugo-Urquidez, dealing with a search by US agents of a Mexican national’s property in Mexico, that non-resident aliens are not protected by the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution), but also of public debate more generally, which frequently starts from the assumption that citizens naturally have constitutional rights, whereas foreigners do not. But while this kind of citizenship discourse is especially prominent in the US, it is by no means confined to it. Notably, the statutes regulating surveillance powers in all of the Five Eyes countries frequently make distinctions between eavesdropping on citizens (and perhaps permanent residents) versus non-citizens, as well as surveillance that takes place in or outside the state’s territory. Under these statutory frameworks non-citizens enjoy fewer protections than citizens, if they have any rights at all.

In order to assess its implication in international human rights law, we first need to look at the possible justifications for this citizenship-oriented approach. In contrast to arguments by David Cole (here and here) and Kenneth Roth in favour of a global human rights to privacy, Orin Kerr at Lawfare rightly points out that the citizenship-oriented approach stems from a different conception of government, one of ‘governments as having legitimacy because of the consent of the governed, which triggers rights and obligations to and from its citizens and those in its territorial borders.’ This is an essentially contractarian conception of the Constitution, which sees it as the manifestation of a social compact.

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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights: Introduction

Published on November 25, 2013        Author: 

The past few weeks have seen increasing discussions of how human rights treaties might apply to mass electronic surveillance programs as run e.g. by the NSA and GCHQ or the agencies of the other ‘Five Eyes’ countries. Indeed, the already is or soon will be pending litigation challenging the compatibility of these programs with privacy guarantees under the relevant human rights treaties or under domestic constitutional law. Some of these cases are likely to proceed to an examination of the merits, particularly in Europe, where standing, state secrets and political question doctrines are either non-existent or are not as onerous for applicants to overcome as they are in the United States.

Similarly, the UN General Assembly is currently considering a proposed joint German-Brazilian resolution that would affirm the relevance of the right to privacy in the context of mass electronic surveillance (reports here and here). The draft resolution directly relies on Article 17 ICCPR, under which ‘[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.’ The United States, on the other hand, is working hard to water down the text of the resolution, and is particularly anxious for the resolution to avoid affirming that the ICCPR applies extraterritorially. Apparently the US has actually managed to do so, but we will see what the final outcome will be.

This is the introduction to a series of posts on the application of human rights treaties to foreign surveillance. The main focus of the series is on the threshold question of whether human rights treaties would apply at all to extraterritorial interferences with privacy. The debate has a number of priors, so readers will forgive me (and be warned of) the number and length of the posts. The posts will go live during the course of the week.

This series builds upon our previous coverage of these issues in two posts by Anne Peters (here and here) and last week’s post by Carly Nast of Privacy International. I will be updating the links to each post in the series as it goes live.

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