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Mass Internet surveillance a threat to privacy and international law

A new report from the UN says that intelligence agency surveillance is a threat to online privacy and a challenge to international law.

UN report on mass surveillance
Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on counter terrorism and human rights, wrote to the UN general assembly on Wednesday, after publishing a report in the Guardian on mass surveillance initiatives that were brought to light by the Edward Snowden leak.

"Bulk access technology is indiscriminately corrosive of online privacy and impinges on the very essence of the right guaranteed by [the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]," wrote Emmerson, reported Reuters.

Emmerson explained that mass surveillance is in conflict with the norms of international law. He argued that for law enforcement or national security purposes, intelligence agencies should only be allowed to access information on an individual basis and not as part of a mass surveillance effort.

"It is incompatible with existing concepts of privacy for states to collect all communications or metadata all the time indiscriminately. The very essence of the right to the privacy of communication is that infringements must be exceptional, and justified on a case-by-case basis," Emmerson wrote.

The report explained that the use of mass surveillance on the internet eliminates the right to privacy of communications. Emmerson also mentioned a cyber warfare suite called QUANTUM, which can infiltrate servers with malware so that the government has secret control over computers in designated areas.

"This amounts to a systematic interference with the right to respect for the privacy of communications, and requires a correspondingly compelling justification," Emmerson wrote, according to the Guardian.

Violation of human rights law
In the report the UN special rapporteur explained the argument that mass surveillance helps to suppress and eliminate terrorism is not an adequate justification for its use, according to human rights law.

The right to privacy is not an absolute right, according to Emmerson. If a person is under suspicion for terrorism, or is a threat to the public, that person may be subject to formal investigation and surveillance. For legitimate counter-terrorism and law enforcement purposes, on an individual basis, surveillance should be used. The practice of surveillance, however, should be revised in national law so that it is in line with international human rights law.

"The absence of clear and up-to-date legislation creates an environment in which arbitrary interference with the right to privacy can occur without commensurate safeguards. Explicit and detailed laws are essential for ensuring legality and proportionality in this context," said Emmerson, according to the Guardian.

There have been concerns that mass surveillance makes it difficult for the UN and other proponents of international human rights law to identify violations. In July, Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, said that the secretive nature of mass surveillance greatly limits any effort to identify responsibility in human rights violations, reported Reuters. The commissioner also warned that it is increasingly difficult to know when violations are taking place, and urged governments to protect the privacy of citizens as well as other human rights.

"The internet is not a purely public space. It is composed of many layers of private as well as social and public realms," wrote Emmerson.

Ultimately, it is clear that mass surveillance of the Internet by intelligence agencies is a threat to international law. In the current climate, human rights watchdogs are not able to perform their jobs, due to the secrecy in mass surveillance and lack of transparency into intelligence agency activities in general. Law enforcement and national security are paramount, of course, but countries can be kept safe without compromising the basic rights of citizens. 

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