U.N. human rights chief: Surveillance is now world’s “dangerous habit”


United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre)

In a new hard-hitting draft report, Navi Pillay, the United Nation's High Commissioner for Human Rights, has thrown the weight of the U.N. General Assembly behind the idea that digital privacy is a human right, and one under attack amid disclosures of surveillance by "signals intelligence agencies," not only the United States' National Security Agency but the United Kingdom's General Communications Headquarters.

High Commissioner Pillay's worry? That technology-enabled violations of personal privacy are no longer, if they ever were, rare events that affect already marginalized populations. "Examples of overt and covert digital surveillance in jurisdictions around the world have proliferated," reads the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report, called "The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age," "with governmental mass surveillance emerging as a dangerous habit rather than exceptional measure."

The unnerving dynamic that Pillay identifies is that as "the Internet has become both ubiquitous and increasingly intimate," the digital tools like mass data storage that can serve to amplify the online experience have dropped in price, which can also make routine surveillance less costly to governments. "The technological platforms upon which global political, economic, and social life are increasingly reliant are not only vulnerable," reads the report, "they may actually help facilitate it." The phrase that Pillay uses to describe the product of a reliance upon modern technologies and the degree to which they can be monitored is "chilling efficiency."

And the absence of technological restraints has revealed the fact that in some countries data collection is being allowed to operate largely unfettered by judgment or legal restrictions, the report finds. Often the mechanisms in place, it argues, amount to "an exercise in rubber-stamping."

If the tone seems particularly sharp for a U.N. official, it can be seen as the product of Pillay's long-standing interest in the often hidden side of the relationship between governments and their people.

Pillay is a South African, and before joining that country's High Court she served as a defense attorney on behalf of anti-apartheid activists, people who were often the subject of government watching; in 2005, a Freedom of Information Act request in Britain revealed, for example, that the Special Branch of that country's police had engaged in extensive surveillance of those engaged in efforts to end racial oppression in South Africa.

But Pillay has sympathy for those unwilling to wait decades and master official channels to reveal who's watching them. She has defended the disclosures of Edward Snowden about NSA surveillance, arguing in favor of sparing him judicial retribution and saying, "We owe a great deal to him for revealing this kind of information."

In her work illuminating potential risks of digital government observation, Pillay has the backing of the U.N. General Assembly. Last December, the body passed Resolution 68/167, which called upon the High Commissioner for Human Rights to issue the newly released report on "the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or the interception of digital communications and the collection of personal data."

Pillay, for her part, has suggested that her office stands on firm footing in including questions of digital surveillance as part of their mandate. In issuing its online privacy work, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has cited Article 17 of the "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

Issued in 1966, some three years before the U.S. Department of Defense would even begin work on ARPANET, the Internet's predecessor, the covenant establishes that "No 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."

In recent years, of course, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders have raised objections to the reported use of surveillance technologies to track the communications of their people and, in some cases, themselves.

And in her report, Pillay argues in favor of putting in place, through legislatures and through the courts, remedies for the wider swath of the population that might now find its privacy breached.

"But," the report concludes, "the best remedy of all is to establish strong legal protections to ensure that such violations do not happen in the first place."

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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