At the 24th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday, six major privacy NGOs, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), warned nations of the urgent need comply with international human rights law to protect their citizens from the dangers posed by mass digital surveillance.
The groups launched the "International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance" at a side event on privacy hosted by the governments of Austria, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. The text is available in 30 languages at http://necessaryandproportionate.org.
"Governments around the world are waking up to the risks unrestrained digital surveillance pose to free societies," EFF International Rights Director Katitza Rodriguez said during the official presentation of the principles. "Privacy is a human right and needs to be protected as fiercely as all other rights. States need to restore the application of human rights to communications surveillance."
The document was the product of a year-long negotiation process between Privacy International, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Access, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and the Association for Progressive Communications. The document spells out how existing human rights law applies to modern digital surveillance and gives lawmakers and observers a benchmark for measuring states' surveillance practices against long-established human rights standards. The principles have now been endorsed by over 260 organizations from 77 countries, from Somalia to Sweden.
Included in the 13 principles are tenets such as:
Necessity: State surveillance must be limited to that which is necessary to achieve a legitimate aim.
Proportionality: Communications surveillance should be regarded as a highly intrusive act and weighed against the harm that would be caused to the individual's rights.
Transparency: States must be transparent about the use and scope of communications surveillance. Public Oversight: States need independent oversight mechanisms.
Integrity of Communications and Systems: Because compromising security for state purposes always compromises security more generally, states must not compel ISPs or hardware and software vendors to include backdoors or other spying capabilities.
EFF and its co-signers will use the principles to advocate at national, regional and international levels for a change in how present surveillance laws are interpreted and new laws are crafted, including urging the United States government to re-engineer its domestic surveillance program to comply with international human rights law.
The event, "How to Safeguard the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age," featured speakers including Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights--who highlighted the recent scandals over British and US surveillance programs in her introductory remarks to the Human Rights Council this week—and Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. Earlier this year, LaRue released a report that details the widespread use of state surveillance of communications in several countries, stating that such surveillance severely undermines a citizenry's ability to enjoy private lives, freely express themselves and exercise their other fundamental human rights.
"Member states of the Human Rights Council should assess their surveillance laws and bring them into compliance with the 13 benchmarks," Rodriguez says. "We must put an end to unchecked, suspicionless, mass spying online."