United in the Defense of the Right to Privacy: 13 Principles Against Mass Surveillance

by Digital Rights LAC on October 18, 2013


By Danny O’Brien and Katitza Rodríguez,

Civil organizations worldwide call upon UN Member States on the urgent need to comply with their international human rights commitment of protecting their citizens from the dangers posed by mass surveillance of Internet. Activists launch a declaration on Thirteen International Principles against mass surveillance.


When the United Nations Human Rights Council opened its twenty-fourth session in September, it was forced to address the United States’ and the United Kingdom’ mass surveillance program. The presence of questions on privacy and espionage targeted at the world’s Internet users was not surprising, if you consider that the U.S. legal framework, which allows intelligence toward foreigners, does not give any protection to the privacy of “no Americans”.

However, the South African Navi Pillay (current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and human rights specialist) said during her opening speech at the Human Rights Council “The broad scope of national security surveillance regimes in countries including the United States and the United Kingdom” and called on all nations “to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place against security agency overreach and to protect the right to privacy and other human rights.”

In this same spirit, on September 13, the German Ambassador Schumacher issued a joint statement on behalf of Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Hungary, expressing concern on the consequences of “mass surveillance and data collection.” And on the 20th of September, in a side event at the Human Rights Council on digital privacy, Access, the Association for Progressive Communications, Privacy International, Human Rights Watch, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and many other civil society organizations warned against the dangers of mass surveillance carried out by governments around the world, most notably for mass surveillance in the U.S. and the U.K. In this side event, the 13 International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance were officially launched, which aimed at restoring the application of human rights for these and future state surveillance programs.

The 13 Principles can be found on en.necessaryandproportionate.org. They make it clear that privacy is a fundamental human right and is essential for the maintenance of democratic societies. Accordingly, any limitation to the right to privacy, including communications surveillance, can only be justified when it is prescribed by law, is necessary to achieve a legitimate aim and is proportionate to the aim pursued.

They also require that any surveillance measure must be adequate and supervised by a competent and impartial judicial authority. In addition, they oblige the State to notify the persons concerned by the authorized surveillance of their communications and this must be done with enough time and information to enable them to appeal the decision. They also compel the States to be transparent about the use and scope of the communications surveillance techniques and powers.

States should publish, at a minimum, aggregate information on the number of requests approved and rejected, a disaggregated request list by service provider, by investigation type and its purpose. The Principles also require the States to establish independent oversight mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability of communications surveillance.

Other principles require comprehensive protection of communication systems and make it clear that jeopardizing State security, often compromises security generally. Lastly, the Principles include safeguards against illegitimate access to communications, while the protection to whistleblower is requested.

The presentation of principles comes on the heels of an important report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, detailing the widespread use of state surveillance and stating that such surveillance seriously undermines the ability of citizens to have a private life, speak freely and enjoy other fundamental human rights.

The 13 Principles – which have been signed by over 274 organizations worldwide – also provide a framework that can be used for people around the world to evaluate and promote changes in their own surveillance laws. At the same time, they enable measuring state surveillance practices against the parameters established by human rights law and explicitly set out that any communications surveillance measure must not be applied to discriminate, among other things, nationality or any other social condition.

Today, mass surveillance practices have little to do with espionage to foreign powers, but with the individuals’ everyday life. NSA’s revelations have shown that the States can pretend to obey the established laws, while breaking its spirit. The 13 Principles reflect a language that states the protection standard and equate it with the international human rights conventions, as opposed to capricious interpretations of the intelligence services. In addition, they will be used to uphold nationally, regionally and internationally a change on how to interpret current and future surveillance standards nowadays, including urging the U.S. government to redesign its national surveillance program to comply with international human rights law.

* Electronic Frontier Foundation International Director – @mala
** Electronic Frontier Foundation Human Rights Director – @txitua

[Translated by, Amalia Toledo]