UN slams mass surveillance as ‘systematic interference’ with right to privacy

16 Oct 2014

The UN has hit out at the mass surveillance techniques employed by the US and UK’s respective security apparatus, slamming the techniques as corrosive and a ‘systematic interference’ with the right to privacy.

In its report, the United Nations (UN)’s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights Ben Emmerson QC condemned the mass electronic surveillance of individuals by agencies such as the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) as a clear violation of privacy rights guaranteed by various treaties.

In a damning report, Emmerson said the activities by these agencies contravenes Article 17 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which he describes as the most important legally binding treaty provision guaranteeing the right to privacy at the universal level.

“With targeted surveillance it is possible to make an objective assessment of the necessity and proportionality of the contemplated surveillance, weighing the degree of the proposed intrusion against its anticipated value to a particular investigation.

“The dynamic pace of technological change has, however, enabled some States to secure bulk access to communications and content data without prior suspicion. Relevant authorities in these States are now able to apply automated ‘data mining’ algorithms to dragnet a potentially limitless universe of communications traffic.

“By placing taps on fibre optic cables through which the majority of digital communications travel, relevant States have thus been able to conduct mass surveillance of communications content and metadata providing intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the opportunity to monitor and record not only their own citizens’ communications, but also the communications of individuals located in other States.”

The rapporteur said this capacity is reinforced by mandatory data retention laws that require telcos and ISPs to preserve this data.

“States with high levels of internet penetration can thus gain access to the telephone and email content of an effectively unlimited number of users and maintain an overview of internet activity associated with particular websites.”

Emmerson warned the communications of literally every internet user is potentially open for inspection by intelligence and law enforcement agencies in countries such as the UK, US and France.

“This amounts to a systematic interference with the right to respect the privacy of communications and requires a correspondingly compelling justification,” he said.

Mass surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden

Interview with Edward Snowden’s attorney Ben Wizner

Interview with Edward Snowden’s attorney, Ben Wizner

Last year, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed mass surveillance efforts by the NSA and the GCHQ. Snowden is now in exile in Russia.

He revealed US intelligence agencies, with help from their counterparts in the UK, were snooping on the communications of non-US citizens by using systems such as PRISM and Tempura, including the non-US citizens’ use of sites such as social network Facebook and internet search giant Google.

Snowden also revealed the agencies were spying on the mobile phone records of senior European politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Earlier this week, Snowden’s lawyer Ben Wizner told Siliconrepublic.com that not only was the method of mass surveillance counter-intuitive to targeted surveillance based on real suspicion, but by their very actions the security agencies were undermining the security of electronic communications across the world.

“For the first time in human history it is technologically and financially feasible for governments and corporations to record and store almost all records of human activity.”

Wizner added: “Some methods of mass collection require vulnerabilities in systems, such as zero day flaws.

“These are being discovered but not reported so they can be fixed. The NSA is a very active participant in a global market for these activities and stockpiles weaknesses to exploit.

“One of the most shocking things to come from the Edward Snowden revelations is that the NSA has been undermining encryption algorithms and standards to weaken them so its supercomputers can break encryption.”

The corrosive effect of mass surveillance

Emmerson said the efforts by agencies to date have lacked any real proportionality and that the adoption of mass surveillance technologies impinges on the very rights to privacy outlined in UN resolutions.

“The threat of terrorism can provide a justification for mass surveillance only if the States using the technology can demonstrate with particularity the tangible counterterrorism advantages shown to be accrued from its use.

“Moreover, measures justified by reference to States’ duties to protect against the threat of counterterrorism should never be used as a Trojan horse to usher in wider powers of surveillance for unrelated government functions.

“There is an ever-present danger of ‘purpose creep’ by which measures justified on counterterrorism grounds are made available for use by public authorities for much less weighty public interest purposes.”

UN surveillance image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years