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UN to Five Eyes nations: Your mass surveillance is breaking the law

And Navi Pillay calls for Snowden to be protected

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Edward Snowden should be shielded from prosecution because the world needs people willing to expose violations of human rights, says the UN's High Commissioner for Human rights Navi Pillay.

Speaking at the launch of a report into digital privacy, Pillay said Snowden's revelations “go to the core” of the UN's concerns about mass surveillance and human rights. Pillay also described as “fundamental” the idea that the rights people hold offline “should also be protected online”.

The kinds of mass surveillance programs conducted by the “five eyes” partners – including capturing as many calls as possible and tapping into international submarine cables – received a special mention in Pillay's speech. Launching the report, The right to privacy in the digital age, high commissioner Pillay said: “Some governments have ... allegedly operated a transnational network of intelligence agencies through interlocking legal loopholes, effectively evading the protections provided by their domestic laws”.

Five Eyes is the codename for the alliance of the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The report [PDF] singles out Uncle Sam's NSA and Blighty's GCHQ's mass spying, as revealed by Edward Snowden, as a motivation for assembling the report.

Citing article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (paragraph 2), the report says it's not enough for parliaments to pass acts allowing mass surveillance. If those laws are out-of-step with the covenant, they will breach international laws.

The report warns of “governmental mass surveillance emerging as a dangerous habit rather than an exceptional measure”.

As a response, stricter protections are needed: “Secret rules and secret interpretations of the law – even if issued by judges – are not compatible with the principle that laws should be clear and accessible”, Pillay said, adding that “any surveillance of digital communications must be monitored and supervised by completely independent institutions.”

On data retention, which she described as “a recurring feature of surveillance regimes”, Pillay didn't hold back: “This appears neither necessary nor proportionate,” she said.

That's expanded upon in the report text: “Mass or 'bulk' surveillance programmes may thus be deemed to be arbitrary, even if they serve a legitimate aim and have been adopted on the basis of an accessible legal regime … it will not be enough that the measures are targeted to find certain needles in a haystack; the proper measure is the impact of the measures on the haystack, relative to the harm threatened; namely, whether the measure is necessary and proportionate.”

The way information is shared between agencies – and presumably between governments – is also criticised: “sharing of data between law enforcement agencies, intelligence bodies and other State organs risks violating article 17 of the Covenant, because surveillance measures that may be necessary and proportionate for one legitimate aim may not be so for the purposes of another,” it states. ®

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