People’s rights to privacy is coming under even greater pressure from the use of modern networked digital technologies whose features make them formidable tools for surveillance, control and oppression, a new UN report has warned.
Speaking to the media today at the United Nations in Geneva, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), Elizabeth Throssell, said that “the report details how surveillance tools such as the ‘Pegasus’ software, can turn most smartphones into ‘24 hour surveillance devices’, allowing the ‘intruder’ not only access to everything on our phones, but also weaponizing them to spy on our lives.”
This latest report on privacy in the digital age by OHCHR looks at use of intrusive hacking tools (“spyware”) by State authorities, the role of robust encryption methods in protecting human rights online, and the impacts of widespread digital monitoring of public spaces, both offline and online.
“Digital technologies bring enormous benefits to society, but pervasive surveillance comes at a high cost, undermining rights and choking the development of vibrant pluralistic democracies », said Ms. Throssel. «The right to privacy is more at risk than ever before, and this is why action is needed and needed now.”
The report also cautions that government interference with encrypted communications, and indiscriminate surveilling of the public would de facto not meet the standards of proportionality, necessity and effectiveness as required under international human rights law.
“While such spyware tools are purportedly deployed to combat terrorism and crime, they have often been used for illegitimate reasons », reported Ms Throssel. «For example, to clamp down on critical or dissenting views and on those who express them, including journalists, opposition political figures and human rights defenders.”
The report reiterates OHCHR’s call for a moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of hacking tools until a human rights-based safeguards regime is in place.
According to Liz Throssel, “urgent steps are needed to address the spread of spyware ». She added that “the report reiterates the call for a moratorium on the use and sale of hacking tools until adequate safeguards to protect human rights are in place. Authorities should only hack a personal advice as a last resort to, as the report says, ‘prevent or investigate a specific act amounting to a serious threat to national security or a specific serious crime.’ ”
Governments often fail to adequately inform the public about their surveillance activities, and even where surveillance tools are initially rolled out for legitimate goals, they can easily be repurposed, often serving ends for which they were not originally intended.
Ms Throssel added that “the report also raises the alarm about the growing surveillance of public spaces. Now, previous practical limitations on the scope of surveillance have been swept away by large scale automated collection and analysis of data, as well as new digitized identity systems and extensive biometric databases that greatly facilitate the breadth of such surveillance measures.”
Such deep interference with the right to privacy can have a profound negative impact on democracy, free expression and the enjoyment of many other human rights. This is why, the report recalls, any interference with the right to privacy, whether that be hacking, restrictions to access and use of encryption technology or surveillance of the public, must comply with international human rights law.