United Nations Appoints Its First Privacy Advocate

July 27, 2015

Bailin-Brown - REUTERS Kacper PempelThe United Nations Human Rights Council recently appointed its first dedicated privacy advocate.  This appointment sends an important message regarding the significance of privacy rights in the digital age.  It is an action which should be used as a model by other governments around the world.

The Human Rights Council appointed Joseph Cannataci to serve as its first “Special Rapporteur” on privacy issues.  Special Rapporteurs are individual experts on key issues affecting human rights.  They are not representatives of governments or any other special interests, and they are not employees of the United Nations.  Instead, they are subject matter experts, and their mission is to focus attention, conduct research, and engage in issue analysis for the benefit of the Human Rights Council.

This appointment is timely and significant.  It sends the message that recognition and preservation of privacy rights are key aspects of human rights.  By naming a Special Rapporteur for privacy, the United Nations signals its intention to address privacy rights as an element of human rights.

Governments around the world should follow the lead of the Human Rights Council in this area.  The virtually daily revelations regarding multiple violations of personal privacy, including the recent acknowledgement of the compromise of tens of millions of personal data files held by the United States government’s Office of Personnel Management, underscore the scope of the current global threat to personal privacy.

The United States government and all state and local governments should adopt approaches to information privacy that parallel those of the Human Rights Council.  All governments should establish privacy advocate positions.  Those advocates should be empowered to examine critical privacy issues and to develop policies, practices, and procedures for use by governments to promote more effective protection of the personal privacy interests of citizens.

Privacy advocates in government must be provided with actual authority to shape policy and conduct.  Mere appointment of those advocates is not sufficient.  They must also be given enough power to force government action to protect the privacy interests of citizens.

Appointment of a Special Rapporteur for privacy by the U.N. Human Rights Council is a significant action in support of privacy rights.  It highlights the important link between personal privacy and human rights.  It should enhance the ability of the Council to integrate privacy considerations into its human rights activities.  The Council’s action also provides a useful model for other governments, encouraging them to introduce empowered privacy advocates into their daily operations.