Talking about Privacy in the United Nations

Protesters support Edward Snowden at a “Stop Watching Us” protest in Berlin. Photo by: Markus Winkler

Protesters support Edward Snowden at a “Stop Watching Us” protest in Berlin. Photo by: Markus Winkler

For several months there has been a sense of dissatisfaction in the United Nations. More specifically, since Edward Snowden revealed that the United States was making use of modern technology to spy on some of its competitors, illegally accessing valuable political and corporate information, some States have made their displeasure known.

Therefore, in addition to undertaking studies and generating discussions, the universal system of human rights has been pushed to take a stand on the issue.

As a result, and for the first time in the history of the UN, on March 26, the Human Rights Council resolved to form a Special Rapporteurresponsible for monitoring, investigating, and reporting on the situation of the right to privacy. The Special Rapporteur will focus specifically on privacy rights in the digital age, violations of these rights, and how such violations affect other rights.

The need for this Rapporteur was echoed by more than 90 civil society organizations, including Dejusticia, who warned of further risks to personal and sensitive information as a result of new technology. For example, this has been a consequence of drones.

Hobbyists with a few hundred dollars now have access to drone technology. Photo credit: Michael Khor

Hobbyists with a few hundred dollars now have access to drone technology. Photo credit: Michael Khor

To date, these small, remotely controlled airplanes with high resolution cameras have offered specific services to police and a small number of other clients. But manufacturers are now experimenting with expanding their reach, and can also read and analyze biometric data. Soon, and for several hundred dollars, individuals will be able to put to work an almost invisible device that acts as a closed circuit television and finds out industrial secrets or records what goes on in private areas.  To where, then, will the privacy necessary to create and express oneself legitimately be relegated if before one even decides to make public what is in one’s head and home, there is a someone that knows and monitors what is going on in our private sphere?

There are also high risks in the collection of data and metadata. The now classic example of this is of an American supermarket that knew before a teen girl’s parents that she was pregnant, thanks to how it collected information regarding her purchases. What this family suffered when they began to receive congratulatory cards before anyone in the family, aside from the teenage girl, knew about the pregnancy, cannot be stressed enough. In such cases, according to its founding documents, the newly formed Rapporteur should monitor that companies are also guaranteeing privacy rights.

And I have not even mentioned the terrifying use of the information about journalists, political opposition, non-profit organizations, or unions that have made our intelligence agencies notorious for manipulating their monitoring functions throughout the entirety of many countries’ governments.

It would do us well to have an arena dedicated to established principles, standards and best practices to protect privacy. A warm welcome for the new Rapporteur.

 

*Deputy Director of the Center for the Study of Law, Justicem and Society (Dejusticia).

Photo credit: Jürgen Telkmann