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Privacy, security and surveillance: tackling international dilemmas and dangers in the digital realm (WP1361)


In partnership with the Institute for Human Rights and Business, and with support from Ericsson and the Government of Sweden.

This roundtable meeting discussed ways in which to ensure safety and security, and protect privacy in the digital realm, particularly with regard to state responses to threats and dangers.

It brought together stakeholders from government, business, and civil society worldwide to facilitate frank and practical discussion in order to:

  • Highlight the increasing challenges and dilemmas for companies in responding to lawful government requests for interception of communications worldwide;
  • Examine the implications of the sale and export of technologies that may be used by States in ways that may violate international human rights standards;
  • Address the appropriate balance between privacy rights, freedom of expression, and legitimate security concerns in designing new laws for data retention and surveillance.

Key issues that came out of the meeting:

  • A division of the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ countries is unhelpful and should be avoided. Human rights are universal and international standards, in particular peremptory norms, apply to all states. Every state has the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. On the other hand, there is a clear demarcation between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ states and this distinction is a real one in the human rights and ICT debate.
  • It is unreasonable to assert that users of digital communications have automatically forfeited their right to privacy. This is highlighted in reports by the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. The UN reports also observe that the use of mass surveillance technology effectively undermines the right to privacy of communications on the internet.
  • In the UK, there is not yet a definition of mass surveillance or bulk access of digital communications and the law regarding bulk data collection and storage by the intelligence agencies is unclear. Large scale interception or surveillance of private communications should be in the public interest and proportionate to the threat. However, proportionality cannot be tested in the absence of a public justification of the operation; without transparency, public oversight cannot be meaningful.
  • While the discussion on surveillance and appropriate oversight is taking place in the US and Europe, there are many countries where there is no public dialogue. In many states there is neither the political will nor safe space for stakeholders to debate the issues freely. However, open discussions about surveillance reform and oversight in Europe and the US could have a positive influence on the global discourse.
  • Surveillance technologies created and manufactured in Europe have been used by governments with a poor record on human rights. The cost of conducting surveillance and collecting data has fallen and the technology is now more accessible and affordable. As a result, more states now have the technical capability to conduct surveillance- a power which few countries are likely to rescind.
  • It is widely felt that export controls and regulations governing the sale of surveillance technology are being outpaced by technological developments. National and regional bodies, including the European Union, will need to act swiftly in order to update regulations governing surveillance exports.
  • Companies and governments need to be more transparent. There is a view that corporate transparency reporting could be more effective and meaningful, and that governments should be consistent in releasing transparency reports.
  • Governments developing an effective multidisciplinary approach to address surveillance, privacy and human rights should include the judiciary, parliamentarians, technologists, corporations, and the human rights community.

Further information

Mail and Guardian: Big Brother erodes our right to privacy (Jane Duncan)

Communities @ Risk: Targeted Digital Threats Against Civil Society

Report from BAE Systems: Business and the Cyber Threat: The Rise of Digital Criminality Report

BBC poll: Web brings more freedom and more surveillance

Ericsson: ICT and human rights: an ecosystem approach

Aljazeera: Q&A: Turkey’s battle with the internet

Global Network Initiative: GNI Submission to UK Investigatory Powers Review – David Anderson will be speaking at this event

Marietje Schaake article: In Defense of Digital Freedom – Marietje will be speaking at this event

Huffington Post: Human Rights in the Digital Age

UN General Assembly: Promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental
freedoms while countering terrorism (69th session) – note by the Secretary General

Paul Bernal blog: Knights of the ISC Round Table…. – Paul will be a chair at this event

Social media

Social media engagement is encouraged for this event. Comments might include a summary of what is being said (non-attributable), the direction of the discussion or general impressions of the conference.

For Twitter users, please include @WiltonPark when tweeting and we will retweet your message.

Suggested hashtags: #digidangers

Partners on Twitter: @ihrb @ericsson @SweMFA

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