Government Surveillance Threatens Global Privacy: U.N. Official

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By Stephen Gardner

A lack of global understanding on limiting government surveillance of personal data poses the greatest threat to individual privacy rights, the chief of privacy policy for the United Nations told Bloomberg BNA in an interview.

Companies “should be out there lobbying” for oversight frameworks that ensure “only the right kind of people carry out the right kind of surveillance,” United National Special Rapporteur on Privacy Joe Cannataci said at a privacy conference in Hong Kong organized by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Clearer surveillance limits help companies by providing more privacy certainty to their customers, he said. It is in companies’ best interests to ensure that laws are “amply clear on this point.”

The global community needs “an internationally agreed set of rules on appropriate state behavior in cyberspace” to help solve issues related to privacy and civil liberties, Cannatica said. Most U.N. countries don’t have privacy frameworks “properly established under the rule of law” to govern the surveillance of personal data by intelligence services, he said.

An international agreement, such as a treaty, would help companies and consumers gain clarity on governmental surveillance powers regarding personal data, he said. An international code could help resolve conflicts between jurisdictions over data surveillance issues.

Regulators in countries with data privacy frameworks have become significantly stronger in recent years, with more authority to determine the kinds of information that are off-limits to government surveillance, Cannataci said. But only a handful of countries, such as the U.K., have data protection authorities or other independent bodies with powers to ensure that government surveillance is carried out legally, he said. The U.K.'s Investigatory Powers Commissioner is separate from its primary privacy regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Cannataci’s term as U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy ends in August 2018 but could be renewed until July 2021.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Gardner in Hong Kong at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Donald G. Aplin at daplin@bna.com

For More Information

Further information on the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy is available at http://src.bna.com/tfC.

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