United Nations to vote on resolution condemning mass surveillance

A United Nations committee has passed a resolution that explicitly condemns mass online surveillance and calls for its victims to have legal redress. The UN General Assembly will vote on it in December, according to AFP.

The resolution is a modification of an earlier resolution, passed a year ago, which slammed the monitoring and collection of people’s communications. The new version makes it clear that arbitrary surveillance and/or interception of communications is still a rights violation and possibly anti-democratic “when undertaken on a mass scale.”

The resolution, which would not place binding restrictions on countries as such, also calls on the UN Human Rights Council to consider setting up a “special procedure” for protecting privacy. It was passed by the General Assembly’s Third Committee by consensus on Tuesday.

Right to remedy

The text calls for countries to “provide individuals whose right to privacy has been violated by unlawful or arbitrary surveillance with access to an effective remedy, consistent with international human rights obligations,” and beefs up language from the older resolution about creating effective oversight of surveillance programs.

Unlike its predecessor, it also explicitly refers to communications metadata, such as the details of who contacted whom and when, as opposed to the contents of communications. It notes that “certain types of metadata, when aggregated, can reveal personal information and can give an insight into an individual’s behaviour, social relationships, private preferences and identity.”

However, comparison with reports about the original draft suggest that this language has been toned down. The original apparently called metadata surveillance, or data retention as it is often called, a “highly intrusive act.”

“The resolution’s principles and recommendations would, if reflected in governments’ policies, go a long way to address some of the serious concerns related to state’s surveillance practices in violation of the right to privacy and other human rights,” Privacy International legal officer Tomaso Falchetta said in a statement.

Missing supporters

Both resolutions stemmed from German and Brazilian anger at the actions of the NSA and its partners, including the British spy agency GCHQ, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The new version also follows two reports by high-level UN officials, that said indiscriminate communications or metadata retention was incompatible with human rights.

It appears from the names at the top of the new resolution that it is not backed by any of the “Five Eyes” spy club – the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, nor is it backed by China. It is, interestingly, backed by Russia.

The full list of sponsors includes: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and Uruguay.