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The United Nations finds a 'disturbing' lack of transparency about national surveillance

Report comes out in the wake of DRIP
Wed Jul 16 2014, 15:01
Government surveillance is growing

A REPORT from the United Nations (UN) has found a lack of transparency in governments' use and regulation of surveillance systems.

While the UK government is attempting to establish a completely locked down digital communications network, the UN finds that prospect "disturbing".

UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay spoke of the many concerns of her department.

"As you know, my office - and more broadly, the United Nations - has been deeply concerned about the implications of digital surveillance practices by governments, and their damaging impact on human rights, including the right to privacy," she said.

"Digital communications are vulnerable to electronic surveillance and interception - and it has become evident that new technologies are being developed covertly to facilitate these practices, with chilling efficiency.... International human rights law provides a clear and universal framework for the promotion and protection of the right to privacy, including in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance, the interception of digital communications and the collection of personal data."

Laws are good, of course, as long as people stick to them. Pillay said that internationally this has not always been the case.

"Practices in many states have, however, revealed a lack of adequate national legislation and/or enforcement, weak procedural safeguards, and ineffective oversight. All of these have contributed to a lack of accountability for arbitrary or unlawful interference in the right to privacy," she added.

"Some governments have also allegedly operated a transnational network of intelligence agencies through interlocking legal loopholes, effectively evading the protections provided by their domestic laws. In this technological era, people are increasingly reliant on digital media in their political, economic and social lives. It is fundamental that the human rights they hold offline should also be protected online."

Names are not named, and while the speech and the report are damming, we can't say who the UN thinks are the worst offenders. We could go out on a limb and suggest that countries like Turkey, the UK and the US are ones on its mind.

"The report makes it clear that in a large number of states, national legislation and oversight of digital surveillance programs are inadequate. This contributes to a lack of accountability for arbitrary or unlawful interference with the right to privacy," added Pillay.

"The very existence of a mass surveillance programme creates an interference with privacy. The onus is on the State to demonstrate that such interference is neither arbitrary nor unlawful."

While DRIP is being streamrolled through the UK Parliament with cross party support, Pillay said that enforced third-party data retention, a key facet of DRIP, is "neither necessary nor proportionate".

"The constant stream of new revelations shows how disturbingly little we really know about the precise nature of surveillance, and the extent to which our human rights are being violated, and responsibility for those violations is being evaded," she added.

"This report is a useful outline of the international legal framework governing these issues, and points to some alarming gaps in implementation, and some important remedies." µ


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