UN Calls Electronic Surveillance A Threat To Democracy

A new report out from the United Nations’ General Assembly warns that governments’ use of electronic surveillance and monitoring of citizen communications is a violation of human rights and calls for updated laws and guidelines that reflect changes in communications “techniques and technologies.”

free speech kill chain
This EFF graphic illustrates how Internet communications can be observed by exploiting “weak links.”

The growing use and sophistication of digital surveillance has outstripped the ability of societies to legislate their proper use, leading to “ad hoc practices that are beyond the supervision of any independent authority,” and that threaten to stifle free expression, according to the report, issued by the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Council (PDF).

First issued in April, but released to the public this week, the report looks at States’ use of communications surveillance and their impact on what the report calls “human rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression.” It concludes that the growth of online surveillance of electronic communications, including access to stored communications like e-mail and remote monitoring of individuals movements and communications using mobile devices pose grave threats to free expression.

“Today, in many States, access to communications data can be conducted by a wide range of public bodies for a wide range of purposes, often without judicial authorization and independent oversight,” the authors write. “Human rights mechanisms have been equally slow to assess the human rights implications of the Internet and new technologies on communications surveillance and access to communications data.”

Censorship, including Internet filtering, are also powerful tools for eradicating dissent, criticism of governments and political activism, while restrictions on online anonymity merely “facilitate State communications surveillance by simplifying the identification of individuals accessing or disseminating prohibited content,” the report concludes. Finally, governments are increasingly turning to what the report terms “extra-legal” means to conduct surveillance, including the use of malicious monitoring tools like Trojan horse and mass online surveillance programs. Such programs “constitute such serious challenges to traditional notions of surveillance that they cannot be reconciled with existing laws on surveillance and access to private information.” The use of malicious programs for surveillance are “not just new methods for conducting surveillance; they are new forms of surveillance. From a human rights perspective, the use of such technologies is extremely disturbing.”

The UN report urges states to “ensure that rights to freedom of expression and privacy are at the heart of their communications surveillance frameworks.” The report urges governments to bring surveillance activity under the aegis of legal frameworks that meet “a standard of clarity and precision,” and that are necessary to “achieve a legitimate aim.” Governments need to reframe communications surveillance as a “highly intrusive act that …potentially interferes with the rights to freedom of expression and privacy and threatens the foundations of a democratic society.” Among other things, illegal surveillance of individuals by public or private actors should be criminalized. Subjects of surveillance should be notified when their communications have been accessed by the state, assuming it doesn’t jeopardize an ongoing investigation. Finally, independent bodies should be established to monitor the provision of communications databy private sector entities to the State, the report concludes.

The report was praised by online privacy activists. “(The UN) report could not come at a better time,” wrote Katitza Rodriguez of The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in a blog post on Tuesday. “The explosion of online expression we’ve seen in the past decade is now being followed by an explosion of communications surveillance. For many, the Internet and mobile telephony are no longer platforms where private communication is shielded from governments knowing when, where, and with whom a communication has occurred.”

The headlong adoption of powerful smart phones and other consumer technologies has created new concerns about the threats to privacy – threats that many consumers may be unaware of.

In just one recent example, scientists at MIT and the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium analyzed 15 months of mobility data for 1.5 million customers of a small mobile carrier in Europe. Their analysis, “Unique in the Crowd: the privacy bounds of human mobility” showed that data from just four, randomly chosen “spatio-temporal points” (for example, mobile device pings to carrier antennas) was enough to uniquely identify 95% of the individuals, based on their pattern of movement, according to a report in the journal Nature.

Other privacy advocates have noted, with dismay, the growing civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the U.S. and other countries. The so-called “drones” are being employed for a wide range of aerial surveillance activities that were, not long ago, well beyond the capabilities of local law enforcement.

In her post, Rodriguez of EFF said that her organization believes that EFF believes that metadata collected by mobile devices is “as sensitive as the content of communication and therefore deserves strong human rights protections.”

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