We're one step closer in winning the fight against the human rights violations posed by mass surveillance. On Tuesday, the United Nations Third Committee adopted a resolution reaffirming the right to privacy in the digital age and stressing the importance of the right to seek, receive, and impart information.

Entitled "The right to privacy in the digital age," the draft resolution introduced by Brazil and Germany does not name specific countries, but is aimed at upholding the right to privacy for everyone at a time when the United States and the United Kingdom have been conducting sweeping mass surveillance on billions of innocent individuals around the world from domestic soil.

The draft resolution, adopted by consensus by over 50 states, welcome the recommendations of Frank LaRue, UN Special Rapporteur on Free Expression. La Rue's report, published earlier this year, makes the case that privacy is an essential requirement for the realization of the right to free expression:

Undue interference with individuals' privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas.... An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.

The draft resolution calls upon all states:

  1. To respect and protect the right to privacy, including in the context of digital communication.
  2. To take measures to put an end to violations of those rights and to create the conditions to prevent such violations,
  3. To review their procedures, practices and legislation regarding the surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data, including mass surveillance, interception and collection ... by ensuring the full and effective implementation of all their obligations under international human rights law.
  4. To establish independent national oversight mechanisms capable of maintaining transparency and accountability for state surveillance of communications,
  5. Requests the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit a report to the General Assembly on the protection of the right to privacy, including in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of digital communications and collection of personal data, including on a mass scale.

While we see this as a small victory for privacy, we must note that the resolution was weakened by the United States and its allies who stripped out a sentence that explicitly defined mass surveillance as a violation of human rights. The US also tried (and failed) to remove any suggestion that privacy protestions apply extraterritorially. The final text of the draft resolution noted that states have only "deep concerns" with the "negative impacts" of surveillance and collection of personal data, at home and abroad, when carried out on a mass scale. 

Currently, the draft resolution reaffirms a core principle of international human rights law: states cannot ignore their human rights obligations simply because their surveillance activities occur outside of their borders. The draft resolution, if adopted, will make it harder for the US and its Five Eyes allies to claim that their international human rights obligations stop at their borders in an effort to justify their mass surveillance activities. As a coalition of civil society including EFF previously said, "Just as modern surveillance transcends borders, so must privacy protections."

If adopted, this will be the first resolution by the general assembly on the right to privacy. The last time that the right to privacy was examined by a multinational division of the UN was in 1988. It therefore represents an excellent opportunity for States to update their understandings of international human rights law in the context of the massive technological advances that have taken place over the last 25 years. The 193-member general assembly is expected to vote on the non-binding resolution next month.

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