November 21, 2013 | By Katitza Rodriguez

Open Letter to the UN General Assembly: Reject Mass Surveillance

The United National General Assembly should make clear that indiscriminate surveillance is never consistent with the right to privacy, five human rights groups wrote in an open letter to UN ambassadors on November 20th. The letter, signed by Access, Amnesty International, EFF, Human Rights Watch, and Privacy International, urges the General Assembly to approve a resolution on "The right to privacy in the digital age," that take a stand against the vast collection, interception and monitoring of personal data of innocent individuals both at home and abroad.

The text of the letter:

To All Member States of the United Nations General Assembly

Dear Ambassador,

The right to privacy is central to who we are as humans and is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It protects us from unwarranted intrusions into our daily lives, allows us to speak freely without fear of retribution, and helps keep our personal information, including health records, political affiliations, sexual orientation, and familial histories, safe. Indiscriminate mass surveillance, which tramples individuals’ right to privacy and undermines the social contract we all have with the State, must come to end immediately.

That is why we welcome efforts at the United Nations to adopt a resolution on “The right to privacy in the digital age.” Should it be adopted, the resolution, introduced by Brazil and Germany, would be the first major statement by the UN on privacy in 25 years. A strong resolution would crucially reiterate the importance of protecting privacy and free expression in the face of technological advancements and encroaching State power. It would also build on the strong stance taken by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, in recent months, as well as the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, an initiative supported by 300 organizations from around the world.

As negotiations continue on this draft resolution, we are deeply concerned that the countries representing the “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance—the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom—have sought to weaken the resolution at the risk of undercutting their own longstanding public commitment to privacy and free expression.  In discussion of the draft resolution, we urge these countries and the entire General Assembly to protect the right to privacy and take into account these basic points:

  • Privacy is intrinsically linked to freedom of expression and many other rights;
  • The mere existence of domestic legislation is not all that is required to make surveillance lawful under international law;
  • Indiscriminate, mass surveillance is never legitimate as intrusions on privacy must always be genuinely necessary and proportionate; 
  • When States conduct extraterritorial surveillance, thereby exerting control over the privacy and rights of persons, they have obligations to respect privacy and related rights beyond the limits of their own borders;
  • Privacy is also interfered with even when metadata and other third party communications are intercepted and collected.

We call upon all States meeting at the UN General Assembly this week to take a stand against indiscriminate mass surveillance, interception and data collection, both at home and abroad, to support the draft resolution and to uphold the right of all individuals to use the information and communication technologies such as the internet without fear of unwarranted interferences.

This is a critical moment for the protection of privacy around the world.

Signed,

Access

Amnesty International

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Human Rights Watch

Privacy International


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