Privacy groups call on UN to condemn surveillance

Vote on privacy resolution likely next week

A coalition of five privacy and digital rights groups is pushing the United Nations to take a stand against international surveillance programs deployed by the U.S. government and some allies.

The groups, including Amnesty International, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Human Rights Watch, have asked members of the U.N. General Assembly to support a resolution advanced by Brazil, Germany and other countries this month that says nations are "deeply concerned at the negative impact that surveillance ... may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights."

The U.S. and four allies -- the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, sometimes called the Five Eyes -- have tried to soften the language in the resolution with only minor changes made so far. The resolution reaffirms the right to privacy, meaning "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his/her privacy, family, home or correspondence."

The resolution, focusing on privacy in the digital age, also calls on U.N. member nations to "put an end to violations of those rights." The resolution doesn't specifically name the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance programs, unveiled in leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden this year, but it's clear the NSA and similar surveillance efforts are its target.

The privacy groups, in a letter sent Thursday to U.N. delegations, encourage members to support the resolution, saying it would be the first major statement by the U.N. on privacy in 25 years.

The right to privacy "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," the letter said. "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."

The Social, Humanitarian Cultural Affairs Committee of the U.N. is due to debate the resolution next week. A vote for the resolution would send a strong message that mass surveillance programs are not approved of by many countries, members of the privacy coalition said.

"We are at a crucial moment for the right to privacy," Carly Nyst, head of international advocacy at Privacy International said in an email. "The message from the international community is clear -- the Five Eyes states can no longer continue to act outside the law. Surveillance threatens the foundations of free and open societies and must be brought within the rule of law."

Representatives of the NSA and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. didn't immediately return messages seeking comment on the resolution.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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