June 1, 2013 - Updated on January 25, 2016

Human Rights Council should approve cyber-surveillance report

Reporters Without Borders welcomes a report to the UN Human Rights Council on state internet surveillance, which makes clear the grave effects of government internet monitoring on human rights, especially freedom of information.
The report was issued by Frank LaRue, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. A Council vote on the report is scheduled on 3 June. Reporters Without Borders asks that the Council’s member states approve the report. The document marks the international community’s first effort to address the issue of internet surveillance. A vote of approval would lay the groundwork for international and regional limitations on government internet monitoring. The issue has been a major concern of RWB for nearly 10 years (read RSF submission for United Forum on business and Human Rights). The press freedom organization has repeatedly opposed state and private sector actions designed to monitor specific groups and individuals. A special report on surveillance of 12 March (the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship) explores the issue in depth. The special rapporteur’s report makes clear that security excesses linked to this form of surveillance are widespread. The use of technology that enables spying on citizens is not limited to authoritarian states, LaRue notes. He cites laws on terrorism, national security and organized crime that are on the books in many democratic countries – laws that authorize cyber-surveillance. These may be used to “target vulnerable groups,” including journalists, the report says. (Paragraph 52: "Journalists are also particularly vulnerable to becoming targets of communications surveillance because of their reliance on online communication"). In addition, the special rapporteur notes that journalists are especially exposed to the negative effects of surveillance, which may involve “violation of...human rights” (Paragraph 51). The rapporteur notes that the use of personal data affects personal privacy. For journalists and their sources, surveillance of their communications can have catastrophic consequences. Relevant laws now in place are in many cases out of date or inadequate and must be adapted to keep pace with technological change, the report concludes (Paragraph 50). The document recommends penalizing unauthorized surveillance and establishing judicial control of the practice (Paragraph 54), especially as it involves collecting and storing personal data. The report recommends that governments raise public awareness of the uses of communications technology and of the extent of surveillance mechanisms and legal authority. Notably, the rapporteur shares the concern expressed by RWB in its special report on surveillance over “new methods for conducting surveillance” (Paragraph 62), such as offensive intrusion (including trojans), as well as interception under legal authority. RWB commends LaRue’s call for states to assume responsibility on this issue They are obliged not only to respect rights, but above all to protect them against violations (Paragraph 76). The organization expresses its agreement with the rapporteur’s recommendations concerning the private sector:
"States must take measures to prevent the commercialization of surveillance technologies, paying particular attention to research, development, trade, export and use of these technologies considering their ability to facilitate systematic human rights violations." (Paragraph 97).
These recommendations demand the attention not only of governments, but of companies (internet service providers, Web companies, producers and exporters of surveillance devices and software). For its part, RWB has demanded penalties for companies found to be involved in surveillance activities that endanger freedom of information. In that regard, RWB has also noted a trend cited by LaRue concerning internet filtering and censorship: "The burden of such policy is transferred to private intermediaries." (Paragraph 46). The free press organization has repeatedly criticized the danger of the growing power of the private sector in the surveillance field.