State communication surveillance undermines freedom of expression, warns UN expert
5 June 2013
GENEVA – “Freedom of expression cannot be ensured without respect to privacy in communications,” United Nations Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue said today, calling for more global attention to the widespread use of surveillance technologies by States in violation of the human rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
“Who are the authorities mandated to promote the surveillance of individuals? What is the final destiny of the massive amounts of the stored information on our communications?” said. “These questions urgently need to be studied in all countries to ensure a better protection of the rights to privacy and the right to freedom of expression.”
Mr. La Rue’s findings contained in a report* on the implications of States’ surveillance of communications on the exercise of the human rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression, which was presented today to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“Concerns about national security and criminal activity may justify the exceptional use of communications surveillance,” he said. “Nevertheless, national laws regulating what constitutes the necessary, legitimate and proportional State involvement in communications surveillance are often inadequate or simply do not exist.”
“The surveillance of human rights defenders or journalists in many countries has been well documented,” the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression noted.
According to the report, States possess multiple instruments to breach communication privacy today: “Access to the stored content of an individual’s e-mails and messages can be obtained through Internet companies and service providers. States can easily track the movements of mobile phones, identify all individuals with a mobile phone within a designated area, and intercept calls and text messages.”
“By placing taps on the fibre-optic cables, through which the majority of digital communication information flows, and applying word, voice and speech recognition, States can achieve almost complete control of tele- and online communications,” Mr. La Rue explained, further underlining the fact that technological advances enable massive surveillance and censorship of web activities.
“Just recently, these technologies were utilized by Governments confronted with the Arab Spring, for example,” the human rights expert said.
The Special Rapporteur urged States to review national laws regulating surveillance, ensuring better protection to privacy in communication, and raise public awareness of the increasing threats to privacy posed by new communication technologies.
“Private actors also have a responsibility,” Mr. La Rue stressed. “Measures must be taken to prevent the commercialization of surveillance technologies across the globe and the protection of communication data.”
“Without adequate protection to privacy, security and anonymity of communications, no one can be sure that his or her private communications are not under States’ scrutiny,” the UN independent expert concluded.