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UN: Digital Snooping Becoming the Norm

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

FILE - U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

A new United Nations report warns mass digital surveillance poses a threat to peoples’ right to privacy and is becoming a dangerous habit rather than an exceptional measure.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, whose office produced the report, is calling for stronger safeguards against this mass surveillance to protect against violations of human rights.

The report warns that digital snooping is increasing and occurring in countries all over the world. It says the incidences may be greater in governments equipped with better technology.

But the report also says oversight of digital surveillance programs in most countries is inadequate and, therefore, open to abuse.

Pillay says states must show their surveillance programs are being used for legitimate law enforcement or intelligence purposes, and that it is up to government officials to prove these programs do not arbitrarily or unlawfully gather private information.

She says states have an obligation to balance their need for security with their need to protect people’s right to privacy.

“I, of course, support the efforts made in the United States and other countries to safeguard all of us from acts of terrorism," said Pillay. "After all states have an obligation to protect all their citizens against the harm of terrorism. On the other hand, what are the checks and balances? What kind of safeguards should be in place and how should states be encouraged to update their laws and so on to keep pace with these developments?”

The report notes strong evidence of governments' growing reliance on the private sector to conduct and facilitate digital surveillance. Pillay says she is disturbed by the methods governments are using to collect metadata on their own citizens as well as on foreigners.

“Some governments have reportedly threatened to ban services of telecommunications companies unless given direct access to telecommunication traffic. Others have tapped fiber optic cables … for surveillance purposes, or required companies systematically to disclose bulk information on customers and employees. Some have used communication surveillance to target political opposition or dissidents," she said.

Pillay warns that companies which supply data to a state in violation of human rights law risk being complicit or involved with human rights abuses.

The commissioner also stressed the importance of protecting so-called whistleblowers, people who disclose human rights violations. She refused to say whether intelligence analyst Edward Snowden should be pardoned for having revealed the mass surveillance program being run by the United States National Security Agency.

Snowden’s revelations go to the core of the debate regarding the need for transparency, and for that, everyone owes him a debt, she said.

The U.N. report raises concerns about surveillance programs based on racial profiling or which target certain ethnic or religious groups. It says such practices violate international human rights law.

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