Surveillance technology should be banned immediately until “effective” national or international controls are put in place to lessen its harmful impact, a UN-appointed independent rights expert said.
David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, made the appeal on June 25 as he prepared to present his latest report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
He highlighted that while countries were largely responsible, companies appeared to be “operating without constraint” too, in a “free for all” private surveillance industry environment.
“Surveillance tools can interfere with human rights, from the right to privacy and freedom of expression to rights of association and assembly, religious belief, non-discrimination, and public participation,” the Special Rapporteur said in statement. “And yet they are not subject to any effective global or national control.”
According to Kaye’s report, the surveillance of journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics and UN investigators can lead to arbitrary detention.
Surveillance tools can interfere with human rights, from the right to privacy and freedom of expression to rights of association and assembly. It has also been linked to torture and possibly to extrajudicial killings, the Special Rapporteur said, citing various ways that countries and other actors monitor individuals who exercise their right to freedom of expression.
These include hacking computers, networks and mobile phones, using facial recognition surveillance and other sophisticated surveillance tools to shadow journalists, politicians, UN investigators and human rights advocates.
Among the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations is an appeal to all countries to adopt domestic safeguards to protect individuals from unlawful surveillance, in line with international human rights law.
In particular, Kaye calls for the development of publicly-owned mechanisms for the approval and oversight of surveillance technology. In addition, he wants countries to strengthen export controls and provide assurances of legal redress to victims.
Addressing the issue of corporate responsibility, Kaye insisted that companies should adhere to their human rights responsibilities, as they “appear to be operating without constraint”.
To remedy this, firms should disclose data transfers, conduct “rigorous” human rights impact assessments, and avoid transfers to countries unable to guarantee compliance with human rights norms, the Special Rapporteur said.
“The private surveillance industry is a free for all,” Kaye noted, “an environment in which States and industry are collaborating in the spread of technology that is causing immediate and regular harm to individuals and organisations that are essential to democratic life – journalists, activists, opposition figures, lawyers, and others.
“It is time for governments and companies to recognise their responsibilities and impose rigorous requirements on this industry, with the goal of protecting human rights for all,” he concluded.