UN Resolution Warns of ‘Intrusive’ Digital Spying

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Privacy concerns highlighted by UN Committee in wake of mass surveillance and data interception revelations

A committee at the United Nations has expressed its deep concern over digital spying and surveillance, in the wake of the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden.

The UN third committee deals with human rights matters, and it labelled digital spying as ‘highly intrusive’ and a violation of human rights in this digital age.

UN Resolution

The resolution was drafted by Germany and Brazil, and it warned that surveillance of digital communications should be legal and not infringe people’s human rights.

“Surveillance of digital communications must be consistent with international human rights obligations and must be conducted on the  basis of a legal framework, which must be publicly accessible, clear, precise, comprehensive and non-discriminatory,” reads the UN privacy resolution.

Eye spy surveillance security, biometric retina iris © agsandrew ShutterstockBut a reference to metadata surveillance as an intrusive act was removed from the resolution. Metadata is the communications details such as which telephone numbers were involved in a call, when calls were made, how long they lasted etc. But the metadata does not contain the actual content of the call.

In early June 2013, Verizon admitted that the NSA collected the metadata of all American citizens’ telephone communications. That was the tip of the Edward Snowden iceberg and more revelations quickly followed about the wholesale spying activities of the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ.

The decision to drop the metadata reference was done in order that the resolution would be adopted by consensus by all countries. But diplomats told Reuters that the metadata removal was done in order to appease the United States, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. These countries are known to co-operate on surveillance matter, and are known as the Five Eyes surveillance alliance.

“Lawful surveillance, subject to appropriate safeguards and oversight, can be an important tool to protect individuals from criminal or terrorist threats and access to telecommunications metadata can be an important element of the investigation of such threats,” an Australian delegate reportedly told the UN Third Committee.

On Tuesday, Germany’s UN Ambassador Harald Braun reportedly said: “Without the necessary checks, we risk turning into Orwellian states, where every step of every citizen is being monitored and recorded in order to prevent any conceivable crime.”

The resolution is now expected to be adopted by the UN General Assembly in December. Whilst UN resolutions are non-binding, they do carry some political weight.

Spying Problem

In the summer, an American privacy watchdog said the NSA spying revelations had improved America’s cyber security, but there were still concerns

Last week it was reported that Cable and Wireless (CWW) actively assisted GCHQ in the creation of its alleged surveillance programme.

Meanwhile, human rights campaign group Amnesty International has recently released software that can detect whether computers are infected with surveillance spyware from government agencies.

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