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Take Back the Tech: State surveillance violates our human rights, weakens democracy and the rule of law

Author's name: 
Shawna Finnegan

This post is part of the Take Back The Tech campaign: Day 13 – State Surveillance

How do you define security? Can it be weighed against the right to privacy? What other fundamental human rights are at stake when privacy is violated, and which communities are most at risk? Revelations about State mass surveillance this year have inspired worldwide reflection on these questions, including by States themselves.

On November 26th the the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee committee of the UN General Assembly passed a groundbreaking resolution on privacy in the digital age.

The resolution, which is awaiting adoption by the General Assembly, emphasises that “illegal surveillance of communications, their interception and the illegal collection of personal data constitute a highly intrusive act that violates the right to privacy and freedom of expression and may threaten the foundations of a democratic society”.

The scale and power of data interception and collection poses a very real threat to foundations of a democratic society. Surveillance undermines our right to express and associate freely, to organise online, and assemble offline. Under repressive regimes, it threatens the lives, liberty and security of individuals who are seen to be a threat to the State, including human rights defenders and activists, journalists, and marginalised communities.
The risk is even greater for women human rights defenders and sexual rights activists, many of whom work with communities oppressed by the State. In September 2013 the Latin America and Caribbean Women’s Health Network’s (LACWHN)‘s website was hacked and disabled immediately following the launch of several campaign activities, including on reproductive justice. In Uganda, police in the city of Gulu raided the offices of a sex worker drop-in centre, and arrested two staff and three members of the Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA), a registered group that runs the centre.

Increasingly WHRDs are experiencing technology-related abuse and violence, such as online harassment, cyberstalking, censorship and hacking of e-mail accounts, mobile phones and other electronic devices, with a view to discrediting them and/or inciting other violations and abuses against them.

As part of its framing of the right to privacy in the digital age, the UNGA resolution recognises that rapid advancement in ICTs, including the global and open nature of the Internet is “a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms”.

While technology can contribute to human, social and economic development, it can also undermine the institutions and relations that structure development. There is growing fear over the ease with which State actors, aided by corporate intermediaries, can obtain and operate surveillance technologies, in clear violation of the rule of law. This fuels mistrust and self-censorship, further weakening democracy.

Affirming that the same rights people have offline also exist online, the UNGA resolution calls on States to review existing laws and “establish independent national oversight mechanisms capable of ensuring transparency and accountability of State surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data;”

Taking back technology from the surveillance regime requires broad engagement in the review of existing laws and development of oversight mechanisms, which themselves must be established in a transparent manner, accountable to internet users and communities most affected by surveillance, including women.

Take Back The Tech’s daily action on State surveillance encourages you to write a press release, letter to the editor, or blog post about the UN resolution on privacy in the digital age and its importance for women’s rights. Send a copy to ideas@takebackthetech.net.

Image by Chiropterascope Photography, Beat S.

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