This is the third post in a series highlighting flaws in the proposed UN Cybercrime Convention. Check out Part I, our detailed analysis on the criminalization of security research activities, and Part II, an analysis of the human rights safeguards.

As we near the final negotiating session for the proposed UN Cybercrime Treaty, countries are running out of time to make much-needed improvements to the text. From July 29 to August 9, delegates in New York aim to finalize a convention that could drastically reshape global surveillance laws. The current draft favors extensive surveillance, establishes weak privacy safeguards, and defers most protections against surveillance to national laws—creating a dangerous avenue that could be exploited by countries with varying levels of human rights protections.

The risk is clear: without robust privacy and human rights safeguards in the actual treaty text, we will see increased government overreach, unchecked surveillance, and unauthorized access to sensitive data—leaving individuals vulnerable to violations, abuses, and transnational repression. And not just in one country.  Weaker safeguards in some nations can lead to widespread abuses and privacy erosion because countries are obligated to share the “fruits” of surveillance with each other. This will worsen disparities in human rights protections and create a race to the bottom, turning global cooperation into a tool for authoritarian regimes to investigate crimes that aren’t even crimes in the first place.

Countries that believe in the rule of law must stand up and either defeat the convention or dramatically limit its scope, adhering to non-negotiable red lines as outlined by over 100 NGOs. In an uncommon alliance, civil society and industry agreed earlier this year in a joint letter urging governments to withhold support for the treaty in its current form due to its critical flaws.

Background and Current Status of the UN Cybercrime Convention Negotiations

The UN Ad Hoc Committee overseeing the talks and preparation of a final text is expected to consider a revised but still-flawed text in its entirety, along with the interpretative notes, during the first week of the session, with a focus on all provisions not yet agreed ad referendum.[1] However, in keeping with the principle in multilateral negotiations that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” any provisions of the draft that have already been agreed could potentially be reopened. 

The current text reveals significant disagreements among countries on crucial issues like the convention's scope and human rights protection. Of course the text could also get worse. Just when we thought Member States had removed many concerning crimes, they could reappear. The Ad-Hoc Committee Chair’s General Assembly resolution includes two additional sessions to negotiate not more protections, but the inclusion of more crimes. The resolution calls for “a draft protocol supplementary to the Convention, addressing, inter alia, additional criminal offenses.” Nevertheless, some countries still expect the latest draft to be adopted.

In this third post, we highlight the dangers of the currently proposed UN Cybercrime Convention's broad definition of "electronic data" and inadequate privacy and data protection safeguards.Together, these create the conditions for severe human rights abuses, transnational repression, and inconsistencies across countries in human rights protections.

A Closer Look to the Definition of Electronic Data

The proposed UN Cybercrime Convention significantly expands state surveillance powers under the guise of combating cybercrime. Chapter IV grants extensive government authority to monitor and access digital systems and data, categorizing data into communications data: subscriber data, traffic data, and content data. But it also makes use of a catch-all category called "electronic data." Article 2(b) defines electronic data as "any representation of facts, information, or concepts in a form suitable for processing in an information and communications technology system, including a program suitable to cause an information and communications technology system to perform a function."

"Electronic data," is eligible for three surveillance powers: preservation orders (Article 25), production orders (Article 27), and search and seizure (Article 28). Unlike the other traditional categories of traffic data, subscriber data and content data, "electronic data" refers to any data stored, processed, or transmitted electronically, regardless of whether it has been communicated to anyone. This includes documents saved on personal computers or notes stored on digital devices. In essence, this means that private unshared thoughts and information are no longer safe. Authorities can compel the preservation, production, or seizure of any electronic data, potentially turning personal devices into spy vectors regardless of whether the information has been communicated.

This is delicate territory, and it deserves careful thought and real protection—many of us now use our devices to keep our most intimate thoughts and ideas, and many of us also use tools like health and fitness tools in ways that we do not intend to share. This includes data stored on devices, such as face scans and smart home device data, if they remain within the device and are not transmitted. Another example could be photos that someone takes on a device but doesn't share with anyone. This category threatens to turn our most private thoughts and actions over to spying governments, both our own and others. 

And the problem is worse when we consider emerging technologies. The sensors in smart devices, AI, and augmented reality glasses, can collect a wide array of highly sensitive data. These sensors can record involuntary physiological reactions to stimuli, including eye movements, facial expressions, and heart rate variations. For example, eye-tracking technology can reveal what captures a user's attention and for how long, which can be used to infer interests, intentions, and even emotional states. Similarly, voice analysis can provide insights into a person's mood based on tone and pitch, while body-worn sensors might detect subtle physical responses that users themselves are unaware of, such as changes in heart rate or perspiration levels.

These types of data are not typically communicated through traditional communication channels like emails or phone calls (which would be categorized as content or traffic data). Instead, they are collected, stored, and processed locally on the device or within the system, fitting the broad definition of "electronic data" as outlined in the draft convention.

Such data likely has been harder to obtain because it may have not been communicated to or possessed by any communications intermediary or system. So it’s an  example of how the broad term "electronic data" increases the kinds (and sensitivity) of information about us that can be targeted by law enforcement through production orders or by search and seizure powers. These emerging technology uses are their own category, but they are most like "content" in communications surveillance, which usually has high protection. “Electronic data” must have equal protection as “content” of communication, and be subject to ironclad data protection safeguards, which the propose treaty fails to provide, as we will explain below.

The Specific Safeguard Problems

Like other powers in the draft convention, the broad powers related to "electronic data" don't come with specific limits to protect fair trial rights. 

Missing Safeguards

For example, many countries' have various kinds of information that is protected by a legal “privilege” against surveillance: attorney-client privilege, the spousal privilege, the priest-penitent privilege, doctor-patient privileges, and many kinds of protections for confidential business information and trade secrets. Many countries, also give additional protections for journalists and their sources. These categories, and more, provide varying degrees of extra requirements before law enforcement may access them using production orders or search-and-seizure powers, as well as various protections after the fact, such as preventing their use in prosecutions or civil actions. 

Similarly, the convention lacks clear safeguards to prevent authorities from compelling individuals to provide evidence against themselves. These omissions raise significant red flags about the potential for abuse and the erosion of fundamental rights when a treaty text involves so many countries with a high disparity of human rights protections.

The lack of specific protections for criminal defense is especially troubling. In many legal systems, defense teams have certain protections to ensure they can effectively represent their clients, including access to exculpatory evidence and the protection of defense strategies from surveillance. However, the draft convention does not explicitly protect these rights, which both misses the chance to require all countries to provide these minimal protections and potentially further undermines the fairness of criminal proceedings and the ability of suspects to mount an effective defense in countries that either don’t provide those protections or where they are not solid and clear.

Even the State “Safeguards” in Article 24 are Grossly Insufficient

Even where the convention’s text discusses “safeguards,” the convention doesn’t actually protect people. The “safeguard” section, Article 24, fails in several obvious ways: 

Dependence on Domestic Law: Article 24(1) makes safeguards contingent on domestic law, which can vary significantly between countries. This can result in inadequate protections in states where domestic laws do not meet high human rights standards. By deferring safeguards to national law, Article 24 weakens these protections, as national laws may not always provide the necessary safeguards. It also means that the treaty doesn’t raise the bar against invasive surveillance, but rather confirms even the lowest protections.

A safeguard that bends to domestic law isn't a safeguard at all if it leaves the door open for abuses and inconsistencies, undermining the protection it's supposed to offer.

Discretionary Safeguards: Article 24(2) uses vague terms like “as appropriate,” allowing states to interpret and apply safeguards selectively. This means that while the surveillance powers in the convention are mandatory, the safeguards are left to each state’s discretion. Countries decide what is “appropriate” for each surveillance power, leading to inconsistent protections and potential weakening of overall safeguards.

Lack of Mandatory Requirements: Essential protections such as prior judicial authorization, transparency, user notification, and the principle of legality, necessity and non-discrimination are not explicitly mandated. Without these mandatory requirements, there is a higher risk of misuse and abuse of surveillance powers.

No Specific Data Protection Principles: As we noted above, the proposed treaty does not include specific safeguards for highly sensitive data, such as biometric or privileged data. This oversight leaves such information vulnerable to misuse.

Inconsistent Application: The discretionary nature of the safeguards can lead to their inconsistent application, exposing vulnerable populations to potential rights violations. Countries might decide that certain safeguards are unnecessary for specific surveillance methods, which the treaty allows, increasing the risk of abuse.

Finally, Article 23(4) of Chapter IV authorizes the application of Article 24 safeguards to specific powers within the international cooperation chapter (Chapter V). However, significant powers in Chapter V, such as those related to law enforcement cooperation (Article 47) and the 24/7 network (Article 41) do not specifically cite the corresponding Chapter IV powers and so may not be covered by Article 24 safeguards.

Search and Seizure of Stored Electronic Data

The proposed UN Cybercrime Convention significantly expands government surveillance powers, particularly through Article 28, which deals with the search and seizure of electronic data. This provision grants authorities sweeping abilities to search and seize data stored on any computer system, including personal devices, without clear, mandatory privacy and data protection safeguards. This poses a serious threat to privacy and data protection.

Article 28(1) allows authorities to search and seize any “electronic data” in an information and communications technology (ICT) system or data storage medium. It lacks specific restrictions, leaving much to the discretion of national laws. This could lead to significant privacy violations as authorities might access all files and data on a suspect’s personal computer, mobile device, or cloud storage account—all without clear limits on what may be targeted or under what conditions.

Article 28(2) permits authorities to search additional systems if they believe the sought data is accessible from the initially searched system. While judicial authorization should be a requirement to assess the necessity and proportionality of such searches, Article 24 only mandates “appropriate conditions and safeguards” without explicit judicial authorization. In contrast, U.S. law under the Fourth Amendment requires search warrants to specify the place to be searched and the items to be seized—preventing unreasonable searches and seizures.

Article 28(3) empowers authorities to seize or secure electronic data, including making and retaining copies, maintaining its integrity, and rendering it inaccessible or removing it from the system. For publicly accessible data, this takedown process could infringe on free expression rights and should be explicitly subject to free expression standards to prevent abuse.

Article 28(4) requires countries to have laws that allow authorities to compel anyone who knows how a particular computer or device works to provide necessary information to access it. This could include asking a tech expert or an engineer to help unlock a device or explain its security features. This is concerning because it might force people to help law enforcement in ways that could compromise security or reveal confidential information. For example, an engineer could be required to disclose a security flaw that hasn't been fixed, or to provide encryption keys that protect data, which could then be misused. The way it is written, it could be interpreted to include disproportionate orders that can lead to forcing persons to disclose a vulnerability to the government that hasn’t been fixed. It could also imply forcing people to disclose encryption keys such as signing keys on the basis that these are “the necessary information to enable” some form of surveillance.

Privacy International and EFF strongly recommend Article 28.4 be removed in its entirety. Instead, it has been agreed ad referendum. At least, the drafters must include material in the explanatory memorandum that accompanies the draft Convention to clarify limits to avoid forcing technologists to reveal confidential information or do work on behalf of law enforcement against their will. Once again, it would also be appropriate to have clear legal standards about how law enforcement can be authorized to seize and look through people’s private devices.

In general, production and search and seizure orders might be used to target tech companies' secrets, and require uncompensated labor by technologists and tech companies, not because they are evidence of crime but because they can be used to enhance law enforcement's technical capabilities.

Domestic Expedited Preservation Orders of Electronic Data

Article 25 on preservation orders, already agreed ad referendum, is especially problematic. It’s very broad, and will result in individuals’ data being preserved and available for use in prosecutions far more than needed. It also fails to include necessary safeguards to avoid abuse of power. By allowing law enforcement to demand preservation with no factual justification, it risks spreading familiar deficiencies in U.S. law worldwide.

Article 25 requires each country to create laws or other measures that let authorities quickly preserve specific electronic data, particularly when there are grounds to believe that such data is at risk of being lost or altered.

Article 25(2) ensures that when preservation orders are issued, the person or entity in possession of the data must keep it for up to 90 days, giving authorities enough time to obtain the data through legal channels, while allowing this period to be renewed. There is no specified limit on the number of times the order can be renewed, so it can potentially be reimposed indefinitely.

Preservation orders should be issued only when they’re absolutely necessary, but Article 24 does not mention the principle of necessity and lacks individual notice and explicit grounds requirements and statistical transparency obligations.

The article must limit the number of times preservation orders may be renewed to prevent indefinite data preservation requirements. Each preservation order renewal must require a demonstration of continued necessity and factual grounds justifying continued preservation.

Article 25(3) also compels states to adopt laws that enable gag orders to accompany preservation orders, prohibiting service providers or individuals from informing users that their data was subject to such an order. The duration of such a gag order is left up to domestic legislation.

As with all other gag orders, the confidentiality obligation should be subject to time limits and only be available to the extent that disclosure would demonstrably threaten an investigation or other vital interest. Further, individuals whose data was preserved should be notified when it is safe to do so without jeopardizing an investigation. Independent oversight bodies must oversee the application of preservation orders.

Indeed, academics such as prominent law professor and former U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Orin S. Kerr have criticized similar U.S. data preservation practices under 18 U.S.C. § 2703(f) for allowing law enforcement agencies to compel internet service providers to retain all contents of an individual's online account without their knowledge, any preliminary suspicion, or judicial oversight. This approach, intended as a temporary measure to secure data until further legal authorization is obtained, lacks the foundational legal scrutiny typically required for searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment, such as probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

The lack of explicit mandatory safeguards raise similar concerns about Article 25 of the proposed UN convention. Kerr argues that these U.S. practices constitute a "seizure" under the Fourth Amendment, indicating that such actions should be justified by probable cause or, at the very least, reasonable suspicion—criteria conspicuously absent in the current draft of the UN convention.

By drawing on Kerr's analysis, we see a clear warning: without robust safeguards— including an explicit grounds requirement, prior judicial authorization, explicit notification to users, and transparency—preservation orders of electronic data proposed under the draft UN Cybercrime Convention risk replicating the problematic practices of the U.S. on a global scale.

Production Orders of Electronic Data

Article 27(a)’s treatment of “electronic data” in production orders, in light of the draft convention’s broad definition of the term, is especially problematic.

This article, which has already been agreed ad referendum, allows production orders to be issued to custodians of electronic data, requiring them to turn over copies of that data. While demanding customer records from a company is a traditional governmental power, this power is dramatically increased in the draft convention.

As we explain above, the extremely broad definition of electronic data, which is often sensitive in nature, raises new and significant privacy and data protection concerns, as it permits authorities to access potentially sensitive information without immediate oversight and prior judicial authorization. The convention needs instead to require prior judicial authorization before such information can be demanded from the companies that hold it. 

This ensures that an impartial authority assesses the necessity and proportionality of the data request before it is executed. Without mandatory data protection safeguards for the processing of personal data, law enforcement agencies might collect and use personal data without adequate restrictions, thereby risking the exposure and misuse of personal information.

The text of the convention fails to include these essential data protection safeguards. To protect human rights, data should be processed lawfully, fairly, and in a transparent manner in relation to the data subject. Data should be collected for specified, explicit, and legitimate purposes and not further processed in a manner that is incompatible with those purposes. 

Data collected should be adequate, relevant, and limited to what is necessary to the purposes for which they are processed. Authorities should request only the data that is essential for the investigation. Production orders should clearly state the purpose for which the data is being requested. Data should be kept in a format that permits identification of data subjects for no longer than is necessary for the purposes for which the data is processed. None of these principles are present in Article 27(a) and they must be. 

International Cooperation and Electronic Data

The draft UN Cybercrime Convention includes significant provisions for international cooperation, extending the reach of domestic surveillance powers across borders, by one state on behalf of another state. Such powers, if not properly safeguarded, pose substantial risks to privacy and data protection. 

  • Article 42 (1) (“International cooperation for the purpose of expedited preservation of stored electronic data”) allows one state to ask another to obtain preservation of “electronic data” under the domestic power outlined in Article 25. 
  • Article 44 (1) (“Mutual legal assistance in accessing stored electronic data”) allows one state to ask another “to search or similarly access, seize or similarly secure, and disclose electronic data,” presumably using powers similar to those under Article 28, although that article is not referenced in Article 44. This specific provision, which has not yet been agreed ad referendum, enables comprehensive international cooperation in accessing stored electronic data. For instance, if Country A needs to access emails stored in Country B for an ongoing investigation, it can request Country B to search and provide the necessary data.

Countries Must Protect Human Rights or Reject the Draft Treaty

The current draft of the UN Cybercrime Convention is fundamentally flawed. It dangerously expands surveillance powers without robust checks and balances, undermines human rights, and poses significant risks to marginalized communities. The broad and vague definitions of "electronic data," coupled with weak privacy and data protection safeguards, exacerbate these concerns.

Traditional domestic surveillance powers are particularly concerning as they underpin international surveillance cooperation. This means that one country can easily comply with the requests of another, which if not adequately safeguarded, can lead to widespread government overreach and human rights abuses. 

Without stringent data protection principles and robust privacy safeguards, these powers can be misused, threatening human rights defenders, immigrants, refugees, and journalists. We urgently call on all countries committed to the rule of law, social justice, and human rights to unite against this dangerous draft. Whether large or small, developed or developing, every nation has a stake in ensuring that privacy and data protection are not sacrificed. 

Significant amendments must be made to ensure these surveillance powers are exercised responsibly and protect privacy and data protection rights. If these essential changes are not made, countries must reject the proposed convention to prevent it from becoming a tool for human rights violations or transnational repression.

[1] In the context of treaty negotiations, "ad referendum" means that an agreement has been reached by the negotiators, but it is subject to the final approval or ratification by their respective authorities or governments. It signifies that the negotiators have agreed on the text, but the agreement is not yet legally binding until it has been formally accepted by all parties involved.