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It’s Time to Treat Cybersecurity as a Human Rights Issue

Cyber Heavyweights US and Russia Were Silent on Rights

Heads of state and their representatives take part in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to address the situation in the Middle East during the General Assembly for the 71st session of the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 21, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

Cyberattacks are becoming more commonplace, sophisticated, and severe. As Covid-19 forced millions of people’s lives online, a stable and secure internet is essential to the functioning of societies.

Fortuitously, the UN Security Council held its second-ever informal meeting on cybersecurity, led by Estonia, on Friday. The discussion focused on cyber challenges to international peace, but human rights inched their way into the discussion too.

Fundamental rights are at stake when governments engage in cyberattacks, like when Russia shut down the internet, as it did
 in Crimea in 2016 and in Ingushetia in 2018, or when a government hacks into a dissident or journalist’s phone, as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have repeatedly done.

Internet shutdowns deny people access to critical information, the ability to express themselves, work, learn, and access social services. Government hacking infringes on privacy and can lead to other rights violations, in particular for human rights activists and journalists. Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor was imprisoned and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was executed after their governments gathered information on their activities through hacking. Governments like China and Vietnam use cybersecurity as an excuse to exercise more control over the internet and further restrict rights.

At Friday’s debate, at least a dozen countries referenced the importance of human rights. Estonia expressed its “support [for] an open, free and stable cyberspace where the rule of law fully applies, and human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected.” This position was echoed by a number of EU member states - including Belgium and the Netherlands - Ecuador, Japan, Switzerland, and others. Eritrea and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines raised concerns about the spread of disinformation online and the need to reform the prevailing surveillance-based business models of companies in order to safeguard elections. A handful of States, including Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Ireland, and Italy recognized gender dimensions of cybersecurity.

Noticeably silent on rights were the two cyber heavyweights: the US, which didn’t address the issue, and Russia, which didn’t participate in the meeting.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently warned that “new technologies are too often used to violate rights.” Often this happens in the name of, or due to a lack of, cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is a human rights issue. It’s time more governments start treating it like one.  

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