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U.N. Says Governments Are Increasingly Relying On Private Sector For Surveillance

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People deserve a right to privacy in the digital age — that’s what a new report released today by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says.

The report asked governments around the world to take a look at their surveillance practices to match international rights standards after noting a “disturbing” lack of governmental transparency with surveillance policies and practices.

With governments increasingly relying on private companies to aid them with mass surveillance, the report highlights the growing power of these private companies and the need to create a system of accountability to groups that fail to curb mass surveillance and data collection.

“Even non-State groups are now reportedly developing sophisticated digital surveillance capabilities. Mass surveillance technologies are now entering the global market, raising the risk that digital surveillance will escape governmental controls,” according to the report.

Data collection is still considered an interference with privacy as well, even if the collector states it is not being used for surveillance.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks last year about U.S. and British mass surveillance are an example of when technology is misused. The report highlighted that these technologies were deployed through a transnational network made of “strategic intelligence relationships between governments and regulatory control of private companies and commercial contracts.”

The U.N. office says there is “strong evidence” of this reliance by governments to use the private sector to conduct and facilitate digital surveillance, through formal legal mechanisms and covert methods.

“This process is increasingly formalized: as telecommunications service provision shifts from the public sector to the private sector, there has been a “delegation of law enforcement and quasi-judicial responsibilities to Internet intermediaries under the guise of ‘self-regulation’ or ‘cooperation,’” according to the report.

With growing breaches of privacy, companies and governments are seeing backlash from these mass surveillance cases. Germany pulled a contract with Verizon last month after fears of the company’s ties in aiding the U.S. surveillance. On a similar note, Germany also expelled a top U.S. intelligence official last week due to a lack of transparency with U.S. spying methods.

While this report calls for further discussion, more in-depth studies on the protection of privacy and will be presented to the U.N. General Assembly in September, it clearly states that governments cannot maintain these practices of mass surveillance under international law.

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