A proposed United Nations resolution has expressed concern at digital spying calling arbitrary mass surveillance and data collection “highly intrusive acts”.
The resolution developed by the UN Third Committee, which deals with human rights, said such acts violate citizens’ rights to privacy, but a reference to metadata surveillance as an intrusive act was removed from the resolution, which was adopted by consensus to appease the USA, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, diplomats said.
The resolution, drafted by Germany and Brazil, was approved by the 193-member committee as a follow-up to a similar text adopted last year after former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed a spying program that sparked international outrage.
"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," Germany's UN Ambassador Harald Braun said.
Metadata contains details such as which telephone numbers were involved in a call, when calls were made, how long they lasted, when and where someone logged on to email or the Internet, who was emailed and what web pages were visited.
"Lawful surveillance, subject to appropriate safeguards and oversight, can be an important tool to protect individuals from criminal or terrorist threats and access to telecommunications metadata can be an important element of the investigation of such threats," an Australian delegate told the committee after the vote.
The resolution does mention metadata for the first time, warning that "certain types of metadata, when aggregated, can reveal personal information and give an insight into an individual's behaviour, social relationships, private preferences and identity".
But a Canadian delegate said: "If our muddled discussions on metadata are any indication, these conversations cannot take place between diplomats alone. They require the collective expertise of all stakeholders: governments, industry, civil society and the technical community.”
The resolution is now expected to be adopted by the UN General Assembly in December and while such resolutions are non-binding, they can carry political weight.
It calls on states to provide an effective remedy when a person's right to privacy has been violated by unlawful or arbitrary surveillance and encourages the UN Human Rights Council to consider establishing a special procedure to identify and clarify standards protecting privacy rights.