UN committee calls on countries to protect right to privacy

Germany and Brazil are the main sponsors of the resolution on privacy in the digital age

A United Nations panel has approved a resolution that would have its General Assembly call on states to respect and protect the right to privacy in the digital age.

The draft resolution, titled "Right to privacy in the digital age," has Brazil and Germany as the main sponsors, and is an important if primarily symbolic move by the countries involved.

A resolution calling for the protection of human rights online as well as offline, also proposed by Brazil and Germany, was adopted last year in the U.N. General Assembly in the wake of revelations by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about the agency's surveillance in the country and abroad.

German officials said in October last year that U.S. intelligence agencies may have spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone. There were also reports that the U.S. also spied on Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff among other political leaders.

The new draft resolution was passed Tuesday without a vote by the General Assembly's Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural). It would still require the U.N. General Assembly to vote on it. The resolution is said to have been considerably diluted under pressure from the "Five Eyes" surveillance alliance, which includes the U.S., Australia, U.K., Canada and New Zealand, according to reports.

The new resolution added a reference to metadata in the context of digital surveillance, pointing out that metadata can be used to compile personal profiles of individuals. It also affirms the responsibility of private parties to respect human rights when dealing with personal data.

"This means that human rights obligations of States also apply when they use private companies for surveillance purposes," said Ambassador Harald Braun, Germany's permanent representative to the U.N., in a statement Tuesday.

The resolution also requires states to respect international human rights obligations regarding privacy when they require disclosure of personal data from third parties, including private companies, an issue that has become very important in the U.S., where some companies have tried to resist providing data to law enforcement agencies in certain circumstances.

"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," Braun said.

The U.S. took the stand that communications should not be monitored in order to suppress criticism or dissent, or to disadvantage people based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

Kelly L. Razzouk, senior human rights adviser at the U.S. Mission to the U.N., said in comments to the committee that the U.S. welcomes the resolution's recognition "that concerns about security may justify the gathering of certain sensitive information, in a manner consistent with international human rights obligations."

The U.S. is trying to bring some checks on the bulk collection of phone records by the NSA. But the USA Freedom Act, backed by President Barack Obama, tech companies and a number of civil rights groups, this month failed to get the 60 votes needed in the U.S. Senate to end debate and move toward a final vote on the legislation.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement Tuesday that the U.S. should support the U.N. committee's request to the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish a special procedure on digital privacy. "In particular, the U.S. government, should seek the appointment of an independent expert on privacy (a special rapporteur as they're called at the U.N.) by the Council in March," it added.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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