The United States and its key intelligence allies are quietly working behind the scenes to kneecap a mounting movement in the United Nations to promote a universal human right to online privacy, according to diplomatic sources and an internal American government document obtained by The Cable.
The diplomatic battle is playing out in an obscure U.N. General Assembly committee that is considering a proposal by Brazil and Germany to place constraints on unchecked internet surveillance by the National Security Agency and other foreign intelligence services. American representatives have made it clear that they won’t tolerate such checks on their global surveillance network. The stakes are high, particularly in Washington — which is seeking to contain an international backlash against NSA spying — and in Brasilia, where Brazilian President Dilma Roussef is personally involved in monitoring the U.N. negotiations.
The Brazilian and German initiative seeks to apply the right to privacy, which is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to online communications. Their proposal, first revealed by The Cable, affirms a “right to privacy that is not to be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy, family, home, or correspondence.” It notes that while public safety may “justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information,” nations “must ensure full compliance” with international human rights laws. A final version the text is scheduled to be presented to U.N. members on Wednesday evening and the resolution is expected to be adopted next week.
A draft of the resolution, which was obtained by The Cable, calls on states to “to respect and protect the right to privacy,” asserting that the “same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, including the right to privacy.” It also requests the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, present the U.N. General Assembly next year with a report on the protection and promotion of the right to privacy, a provision that will ensure the issue remains on the front burner.
Publicly, U.S. representatives say they’re open to an affirmation of privacy rights. “The United States takes very seriously our international legal obligations, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Kurtis Cooper, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said in an email. “We have been actively and constructively negotiating to ensure that the resolution promotes human rights and is consistent with those obligations.”
But privately, American diplomats are pushing hard to kill a provision of the Brazilian and German draft which states that “extraterritorial surveillance” and mass interception of communications, personal information, and metadata may constitute a violation of human rights. The United States and its allies, according to diplomats, outside observers, and documents, contend that the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not apply to foreign espionage.
In recent days, the United States circulated to its allies a confidential paper highlighting American objectives in the negotiations, “Right to Privacy in the Digital Age — U.S. Redlines.” It calls for changing the Brazilian and German text so “that references to privacy rights are referring explicitly to States’ obligations under ICCPR and remove suggestion that such obligations apply extraterritorially.” In other words: America wants to make sure it preserves the right to spy overseas.