December 30, 2013
The United Nations General Assembly recently adopted a resolution urging nations to restrain their digital surveillance activities. The resolution, which was adopted unanimously, begins to make a potentially significant connection between digital privacy and human rights.
The resolution was introduced by Germany and Brazil. The initiative was largely inspired by the disclosures made by Edward Snowden regarding massive National Security Agency surveillance of digital communications and materials, and targeted monitoring of international political leaders, including the heads of state in Germany and Brazil
The resolution urges U.N. member nations to act in a manner consistent with respect for the privacy expectations of individuals. It calls upon U.N. members to review their communications surveillance activities to ensure that those actions do not violate key privacy interests of individual citizens.
The resolution also includes a commitment that the U.N. member states will establish and operate effective oversight of all of their surveillance activities. That oversight is to be conducted by independent entities granted authority adequate to ensure that they can play a useful role in oversight of surveillance.
The United States, with support from Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand, successfully advocated modification of an important topic addressed in the original resolution proposal. That original version of the resolution included language that described large-scale surveillance of digital communications as a possible human rights violation. The U.S. and its supporters were able to have that language modified to state instead that widespread digital surveillance may have a negative effect on the exercise of human rights.
A significant aspect of this resolution is its effort to begin to link digital privacy with the international principle of human rights. In its original form, the resolution introduced the concept of large-scale digital surveillance by government as a violation of human rights. The United States and others pushed to have that position tempered, expressing concern instead regarding the potential negative impact that digital surveillance can have on the exercise of human rights.
It is reasonable to expect that this debate over digital privacy and human rights will continue and will likely expand in the near future. Universal recognition that widespread digital surveillance of communications and other electronic materials is a violation of human rights would likely have a profound impact.
At present that United States is apparently willing to recognize that overly expansive digital surveillance by government can impede the exercise of human rights. It is, however, not yet wiling to concede that such surveillance may, in itself, violate fundamental human rights.
A number of other nations seem to be prepared to recognize a direct connection between widespread government surveillance and human rights violations. It is likely that these countries will continue to push the United States as they highlight the direct links between digital monitoring activities and critical human rights.