Surveillance technologies must not undermine freedom of expression – UN expert

Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

4 June 2013 – Surveillance technologies used by Governments must not violate their citizens’ privacy, a United Nations independent expert stressed today, calling on States to ensure that free expression is not compromised.

“Freedom of expression cannot be ensured without respect to privacy in communications,” said Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, presenting to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council his report on the implications of State surveillance on human rights.

“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.”

According to the report, States possess multiple instruments to breach communication privacy today. Access to the content of an individual’s email and message can be obtained through Internet companies and service providers, movement of people can be tracked via their mobile phones, and calls and text messages can be intercepted.

“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 said, underlining 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,” he said, referring to a series of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa over the past two years, some of which have toppled long-standing regimes.

Noting that surveillance of human rights defenders and journalists in many countries has been well documented, he urged States to review national laws regulating surveillance and raise public awareness of the increasing threats to privacy posed by new communication technologies.

“Private actors also have a responsibility,” he added. “Measures must be taken to prevent the commercialization of surveillance technologies across the globe and the protection of communication data.”

Without the protection of privacy, security and anonymity of communications, it will not be possible to make sure that private communications are not under scrutiny of the State, he said.


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