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Home EJIL Analysis More on the UN and Surveillance and Privacy in the Digital Age

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.

The 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden of the scope and magnitude of electronic surveillance programs run by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and some of its partners, chief among them the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), have provoked intense and ongoing public debate regarding the proper limits of such intelligence activities. Privacy activists decry such programs, especially those involving the mass collection of the data or communications of ordinary individuals across the globe, arguing that they create an inhibiting surveillance climate that diminishes basic freedoms, while government officials justify them as being necessary for the prevention of terrorism.

The purpose of this article, however, is not to assess the general propriety or usefulness of surveillance programs or their compliance with relevant domestic law. I do not want to argue that electronic surveillance programs, whether targeted or done on mass scale, are per se illegal, ineffective or unjustifiable. Rather, want I want to look at is how the legality of such programs would be debated and assessed within the framework of international human rights law, and specifically under the major human rights treaties to which the ‘Five Eyes’ and other states with sophisticated technological capabilities are parties.

In the wake of the UN General Assembly’s 2013 resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age, it can be expected that electronic surveillance and related activities will remain on the agenda of UN bodies for years to come, especially since the political relevance of the topic shows no signs of abating. Similarly, cases challenging surveillance on human rights grounds are already pending before domestic and international courts.The discussion has just started, and it will continue at least partly in human rights terms, focusing on the rights and interests of the affected individuals, rather than solely on the interests and sovereignty of states.

The primary purpose of this article is to advance this conversation by looking at one specific, threshold issue: whether human rights treaties such as the ICCPR and the ECHR even apply to foreign surveillance. The article will show that while there is much uncertainty in how the existing case law on the jurisdictional threshold issues might apply to foreign surveillance, this uncertainty should not be overestimated – even if it can and is being exploited. The only truly coherent approach to the threshold question of applicability, I will argue, is that human rights treaties should apply to virtually all foreign surveillance activities. That the treaties apply to such activities, however, does not mean that they are necessarily unlawful. Rather, the lawfulness of a given foreign surveillance program is subject to a fact-specific examination on the merits of its compliance with the right to privacy, and in that, I submit, foreign surveillance activities are no different from purely domestic ones.

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2 Responses

  1. Jordan

    Re: your draft, yes, as noted in one of the most widely downloaded and cited articles on drone targeting, human rights law applies outside of U.S. territory (contrary to the Bush-Cheney regime) [ see http://ssrn.com/abstract=1520717 at pages 263-66], but persons targeted by a drone at, say, 15,000 feet are decidedly not within the actual “power or effective control” of the state engaged in such targeting (see id. at pp. 64-65). The person targeted clearly cannot be captured, detained or otherwise controlled prior to death and the body cannot be controlled after death.

  2. […] the territorial extent of data protection rights. Much attention is now rightly being paid to the extension of privacy rights to extraterritorial intelligence surveillance online. But, as I have argued in this blog, determining the jurisdictional boundaries of online privacy […]