In the UN’s most sweeping report targeting mass electronic surveillance, counter terrorism envoy Ben Emmerson says widespread use of the technology by intelligence agencies signals the death knell of privacy on the Internet.
“The hard truth is that the use of mass surveillance technology effectively does away with the right to privacy of communications on the Internet altogether,” says the 22-page document, which was tabled this week.
It warned of “purpose creep” that allows authorities to justify scooping of data on grounds of counter-terrorism, when the information is actually used for “much less weighty” purposes.
Mass surveillance, it said, is a violation of the UN’s 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was endorsed by the U.S., Canada and other members of the “Five Eyes” data-sharing alliance of Western security services.
The UN report on mass electronic surveillance is particularly focused on the U.S. and its allies, but repressive countries, such as China, have upgraded their own surveillance by importing American and other Western tools. © SHIHO FUKADA The UN report on mass electronic surveillance is particularly focused on the U.S. and its allies, but repressive countries, such as China, have upgraded their own surveillance by importing American and other Western tools.
The report called for “explicit and detailed” law reforms to bring surveillance practices in line with international human rights law. And it suggested that legal challenges could be launched to defend citizens from indiscriminate violations of personal privacy.
However strong the report’s conclusions, little is likely to change, says David Murakami Wood, Canada chair in Surveillance Studies at Queen’s University.
“The government will do its best to ignore it,” he said in a phone interview. “Canada has managed to get away with a lot and CSEC (the equivalent of the American NSA) has managed to go unmentioned most of the time.
“They’ve made the fewest concessions and given few responses to criticism” or calls for oversight and restraint, he added. Nor is there any proof that siphoning massive amounts of material from cellphones and the Internet is useful in halting terrorist plots.
However, following the rise of the Islamic State, the UN Security Council last month passed a resolution requiring countries to do everything possible to detect and interrupt support for foreign terrorist fighters, including increased international information sharing.
Emmerson, a British human rights lawyer, said “targeted surveillance” of people suspected of terrorism is different from mass surveillance, which is a dragnet that takes in the information of anyone who uses electronic media.
And he warned that large scale privacy violations were made possible by a partnership between government and private technological corporations that “facilitate digital surveillance.”
As a result, “the communications of literally every Internet user are essentially open for inspection by intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the states concerned.”
The report points out that states have the duty to protect their citizens, and compromising personal privacy could be necessary if there is a “compelling counter-terrorism justification for the radical re-evaluation of Internet privacy rights that these practices necessitate.”
Although aimed at the many global governments that routinely scoop up Internet and cellphone data, the report is particularly focused on the U.S. and its allies, which have the world’s most sophisticated and widespread surveillance apparatus.
Repressive countries, such as China, have upgraded their own surveillance by importing American and other Western tools.
The UN report follows ground-breaking revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden on the extent of the agency’s and other countries’ large-scale electronic spying, which caused international outrage and brought demands for calling the electronic spies to account.
But the outbreak of Islamic State terrorism has turned international attention to halting its progress and protecting Western countries from attack. TStar