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Human Rights Council: Protect the right to privacy

Item 3 Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy

Human Rights Watch shares the special rapporteur’s concern that unchecked, mass surveillance continues to undermine the right to privacy and other human rights worldwide.

As the rapporteur notes, a number of states have actually expanded large scale and extremely intrusive surveillance through new laws in the years since Snowden first brought such practices to light.  The United Kingdom’s Investigatory Powers Act authorizes mass surveillance and hacking and requires internet companies to store a record of every website their users visit.  France has also passed several laws that enable sweeping surveillance with insufficient safeguards. Authorities can collect data in real time and will force service providers to install “black boxes” on their networks to indiscriminately search for “suspicious” patterns.

While the United States enacted modest reforms in 2015, the country’s surveillance activities continue to include the indiscriminate scanning of nearly all communications that flow over Internet infrastructure that links the US to the rest of the world.  The US’ programs also allow the bulk collection of email address books or cell phone locations and intrude on the privacy of potentially millions of people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

Human Rights Watch agrees with the rapporteur that many of these practices have not been justified as necessary and proportionate to addressing legitimate aims, and are especially problematic where states fail to respect the right to privacy of persons outside their borders.  Abuse of data collected in bulk also remains a primary source of concern, particularly given the lack of independent judicial oversight of such practices in many countries.

We call on member states to ensure any intrusion on the right to privacy, including gathering of metadata or surveillance of communications content, are strictly necessary and proportionate to protection of a specified state interest and clearly regulated in law on a non-discriminatory basis. We urge the special rapporteur to continue to examine specific state surveillance programs and underscore practices where legal protections and oversight mechanisms fail to protect the rights to privacy, free expression, and other rights, especially in light of technological advances.

Finally, we encourage the Council to continue to build on its work in this area by responding positively to the UN General Assembly’s invitation to hold an expert workshop.  Such an effort would contribute greatly to our understanding of this fast evolving area, including the role of technology companies and the importance of encryption to the enjoyment of rights. 

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