United Nations Affirms Privacy Rights in the Digital Age

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.

This resolution reaffirms the right to privacy enshrined in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political 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

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Jane R.
Jane R.1 years ago

@Alex H., Obama veto's everything put before him that he disagrees with. He then sneaks his ideas of what he wants for us in other bills and signs them before they go before the house.
Spying on Americans and keeping files on their every move need to be put to a stop!

Kurt Arenhold
Kurt Arenhold1 years ago

... continued ...

And when you buy your next phone - ask for the documentation of the encryption API - there is none ? - I´ll find another one...
Yep, the market rules. If no US company offers and the market asks - may be the chinese may have an answer - or the french - or who ever wants to earn some money.
Of course - a phone with encryption isn´t cheap (yet) - just do this procedure a few times before you buy (any) phone. And may be - you find an appropriate one.

Kurt Arenhold
Kurt Arenhold1 years ago

The statement of the UN just shows they expect us to expect such a statement. Nothing real will happen.

The only way is total encryption for everybody - which is possible due to the increased CPU power of normal computers. So we could force them to tell us whom they are stalking - by the need to get the encryption keys from the users. But - this will work only if we all do it together - to launch total encryption in a pretty short time - for example: a month. Then it doesn´t make any sense to threaten first / single users - because they can´t put all of us into jail.

First step: prepare EMail client programs with plug-in interfaces for encryption & produce templates for encryption algorithms.

Second step: use simple encryption - they can easily hack. So you get used to the procedure, and they don´t complain, because they have no reason for it.

Third step: use individual encryption - varying in key length / complexity / algorithm

Yes, PGP does already exist - but like other monocultures it´s prone to fail. One hack for all PGP-EMails - it´s just too easy - and I assume it´s already done. So it is comparable to the first step. What we need is a common interface to easily switch to something else - an interace which is not fixed to something "like PGP" but also something much different.

And when you buy your next phone - ask for the documentation of the encryption API - there is none ? - I´ll find another one...

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H.1 years ago

Joseph B. - It has been widely publicized that the surveilance started with Bush and in his interviews he has admitted this. Blaming Obama for everything that was started before his reign is inaccurate. The UN may just be a starting point for other countries to put their cards on the table and force the USs hand to stop its over-zealous intrusions.

simon short
Simon shore1 years ago

Channel 4's Alternative Christmas Message:
(Thank you C4!!):


Please circulate. This sort of thing is helping us retain our civic rights.
Happier 2014.

Alex H.
Alex H.1 years ago

To Joseph B: When are you going to realise and accept that Obama does not run the USA. He signs what is put in front of him by the corporate vested interests through the bullied and threatened politicians who do not represent their constituents but are forced to further a political agenda! It is clear that Barack "Head Honcho"is not a happy man as he has realised the awful position that he is in and is going rapidly grey-haired.He looks terrible,in my opinion,and surely this is a case of "be careful what you wish for"?!The position of President of the USA is not that great an aspiration,but maybe the head of the CIA,NSA,FBI,Monsanto or the armed services,might be?!

Alex H.
Alex H.1 years ago

After reading this,it reaffirmed in my mind that the U.N. is nothing but a "wolf in sheep's clothing".The nations that make it up can roar and complain all they like but it is pretty clear which country rules the roost,and that's the USA and its military/industrial complex!?The U.N. is just its "attack dog" and "control mechanism",and I say that because of the number of UN conventions which have been ignored by the USA in the past,while it has tried to force other countries to "toe the line"!!The USA has no credibility,in my opinion,and thank God for the brave Assanges and Snowdens of this murky world,who are attempting to warn the common herd,what is really going on behind their backs.Democracy does not exist in reality.The regular vote we get is just a "pat on the head"and a smokescreen,and we have now discovered that even this system is corrupted.There's nothing happy about the new year,whichever one it is!

Eric Lees
Eric Lees1 years ago

If our politicians had respect for our Constitution and Bill of Rights this Orwellian spying would have never made it out of committee let alone been implemented. It's time we put an end to the NSA. As the current super power we set the standard which others follow. Vote out any politician that voted for the Patriot Act.

Joseph B.
Joseph B.1 years ago

Funny thing- All this spying was revealed on President Obama's watch and no doubt authorized by him and yet, no condemnation of Obama or his Administration-
Had this happened with a Republican President there would be howels of outrage and protests in the streets!
Very little has been said and certainly no impeachment procedings that this snooping needs to stop it right now!
Had George Bush done this there would be impeachment straight away!
Selective indignation!
All this from a man that pledged a new beginning of openness, honesty and non-partisan ship- The winner of a Nobel Peace Prize with less than 6 months in office-
All the while, Obama was snooping on us all-
The Left has lost all creditability not taking Obama, His Administration and the Democrat Party to task for invasion of our most scared freedoms- the freedom from Government snooping and listening to our private lives!

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy1 years ago

Big Brother also likes to lie about us......if we dont come out smelling like scum then they try to make us look like scum.