Advances in information communication technology are dramatically improving real-time communication and information-sharing. By improving access to information and facilitating global debate, they foster democratic participation. By amplifying the voices of human rights defenders and helping to expose abuses, these powerful technologies offer the promise of improved enjoyment of human rights.
But at the same time it has become clear that these new technologies are vulnerable to electronic surveillance and interception. Recent discoveries have revealed how new technologies are being developed covertly, often to facilitate these practices, with chilling efficiency. As the High Commissioner has cautioned in her recent statements [September 2013 and February 2014], such surveillance threatens individual rights – including to privacy and to freedom of expression and association – and inhibits the free functioning of a vibrant civil society.
International legal framework
In December 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 68/167, which expresses deep concern at the negative impact that surveillance and interception of communications may have on human rights. The General Assembly affirmed that the rights held by people offline must also be protected online, and it called upon all States to respect and protect the right to privacy in digital communication. The General Assembly called on all States to review their procedures, practices and legislation related to communications surveillance, interception and collection of personal data and emphasized the need for States to ensure the full and effective implementation of their obligations under international human rights law.
As General Assembly resolution 68/167 recalls, international human rights law provides the universal framework against which any interference in individual privacy rights must be assessed. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (91), to date ratified by 167 States, provides that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation. It further states that “Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
Other international human rights instruments contain similar provisions. While the right to privacy under international human rights law is not absolute, any instance of interference must be subject to a careful and critical assessment of its necessity, legitimacy and proportionality.
NEW report of the High Commissioner
Through the adoption of resolution 68/167, the General Assembly requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights prepare this report on the right to privacy in the digital age. It examines, in the words of the resolution:
“the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of digital communications and collection of personal data, including on a mass scale”.
The report was presented to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-seventh session and to the General Assembly at its sixty-ninth session.
To prepare for this report, OHCHR conducted research, consulted with various stakeholders, and liaised with partners within and beyond the UN system. The Office has encouraged all interested parties to share information and perspectives on the issues raised in resolution 68/167. [See Note Verbale (59) to Member States]