The international community was outraged by the revelation that the United States was spying on foreign leaders, and now the United Nations has waded in. The General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution affirming the right to privacy against unlawful surveillance in the digital age. The resolution “affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.” This includes the right to privacy.
The final resolution dropped language that classified the large scale international and domestic interception and collection of personal communications and data as a potential human rights violation. In its place the resolution voiced concern over the “negative impact that surveillance and/or interception of communication” and personal data has on human rights.
Since this is only a General Assembly resolution, it carries no legal weight. However, it does reflect the opinion of the international community.
Even though this doesn’t have the force of law, Ryan Goodman, professor of law at New York University, argues that the resolution has some hidden teeth. While it’s quite obvious from the plain language of the document that the government should refrain from violating digital privacy, it also includes language that challenges governments to protect privacy invasions by private actors by calling on member states to both respect and protect privacy rights.
By calling on states both to respect and protect the right to privacy, the resolution includes an expectation for member states to regulate private actors. Requiring governments to “respect” privacy rights essentially refers to negative rights — freedom from interference by the state. Nothing earth-shattering there. Requiring governments “protect” privacy rights, however, refers to positive obligations upon the state — a duty of the government to safeguard individuals from abuse by third parties. In United Nations circles, it is well understood that such a duty to safeguard includes protection from other private actors, including businesses.
It’s not just some anti-Americanism that is causing this international outcry. Recently a U.S. court ruled that the government has gone too far in its collection of domestic phone records. In the decision, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said:
“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” said Leon, an appointee of President George W. Bush. “Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.”
The world has changed a lot since international human rights were enumerated. Privacy seems to be an ever more scarce commodity. But it’s good to know that the right to privacy still applies in 2013.
Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz via Flickr