What Privacy?

Why privacy matters, how it is compromised - introducing an initiative to protect it better in the digital age.

By Friedhelm Weinberg on

Privacy is a human right that may often feel elusive, but when it is violated its loss becomes tangible. When you cannot know if what you say will be heard only by those who are supposed to, how can you speak freely? If everything you do at home can be torn into the public realm, to defame or ridicule you, when can you be yourself? Privacy is a human right, both in itself and as an enabling right for freedom of expression and other rights, and it is recognised as such in international human rights law.

Yet, with recent reports about surveillance that appears to know no limitations, legally or technically, a question may be asked: what privacy?

Surveillance will become even easier

While the recent revelations about the extent of spying on everyone – including heads of states – may be a welcome reminder that something needs to be done, it is long overdue. Massively intrusive digital surveillance – especially against human rights defenders – has been documented before, and it continues to be an increasing problem around the globe, as private companies offer surveillance tools that they advertise as so simple to use you barely need any computer skills to handle them.

Yet something can be done

The question is: what can be done?

The first part of the answer is: fortify your defense. Encryption works”, Edward Snowden said. “Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.” However, he also added that “unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it”. That is, unless you are willing to dedicate a lot of your time and energy on becoming an expert in digital security, there will be a risk (if you do want to get started, Security-in-a-box is the best go-to point). Yet, every step makes it harder. The more people encrypt, the less feasible simple, wholesale surveillance becomes, and more resources need to be employed by those who infringe your right to privacy. Yet, essentially that is a digital arms race.

The second part of the answer is: make sure the law is up to date and properly implemented. Privacy is a human right, recognised not only in Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Yet, it needs states that transform this into domestic legislation – adequate for the digital age – and ensure their implementation.

Sign the Principles

To give guidelines for this process, the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance have been developed through months of consultation with technology, privacy, and human rights experts from around the world, and have the backing of hundreds of organizations from around the globe. HURIDOCS is one of the signatories.

The principles have been presented to the UN Human Rights Council, and interest has been immense, as have the efforts been since by some to water down their meaning.

The Principles make clear:

  1. States must recognise that mass surveillance threatens the human right to privacy, freedom of expression, and association, and they must place these Principles at the heart of their communications surveillance legal frameworks.
  2. States must commit to ensuring that advances in technology do not lead to disproportionate increases in the State’s capacity to interfere with the private lives of individuals.
  3. Transparency and rigorous adversarial oversight is needed to ensure changes in surveillance activities benefit from public debate and judicial scrutiny, this includes effective protections for whistleblowers.
  4. Just as modern surveillance transcends borders, so must privacy protections.

As of today, signing the principles is open to those they are relevant most: to individuals, whose human rights need to be protected and promoted. Please visit the campaign website and consider joining the movement.

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