UN Creates Privacy Watchdog to Go After Government Surveillance Programs

Nation-state cyber-spying and surveillance has been a hot-button issue ever since Edward Snowden began his series of leaks exposing the activities of several western governments. Now, the UN has gotten on board the privacy train by voting to create a special watchdog dedicated to the right to privacy in the digital age.

The UN’s Human Rights Council has moved to create a “Special Rapporteur" position, who will be tasked with investigating the privacy implications of member countries’ cyber-spying programs.

“The appointment of a UN expert on privacy in the digital age means that we now have someone to watch those that are watching us,” Eileen Donahoe, the director of global affairs at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “When everything you say or do can be intercepted, monitored or become the object of surveillance, it has a chilling effect on what people feel free to say, where they feel free to go and with whom they choose to meet.”

Brazil and Germany spearheaded the resolution. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil raised the importance of privacy in the digital context at the UN General Assembly in 2013 following reports that both Rousseff and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany were victims of US espionage. Following Rousseff’s address, UN institutions actively pursued the topic, with two resolutions in the General Assembly, a high-level panel at the Human Rights Council, and a report by the then-UN high commissioner on human rights, Navi Pillay.

The new watchdog is focused on digital privacy and will also be responsible for issues in the offline world, such as the responsibilities of police officers when encountering suspects and businesses with their customers’ data.

“How privacy is protected online is one of the most pressing issues of our time,” Donahoe said. “Our hope is that the Human Rights Council resolution marks the beginning of a serious global reckoning with mass surveillance and its effects.”

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