Taming the Wild West of Surveillance: UN Dips Into Digital Privacy

On July 3rd, the top choice for the UN's first digital privacy investigator, Katrin Nyman-Metcalf, was rejected by the German president of the Human Rights Council (UNHRC), who cited complaints from activist groups that she was not a strong enough critic of government surveillance.

Ever since the whistle-blowing actions of former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden exposed the United State's complex surveillance system of private emails and phone data from across the world, digital surveillance has been a contentious issue.

At the center of Snowden's exposé were revelations that the US had spied on some of its closest allies, like Brazil and Germany, including eavesdropping on the private communications of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Earlier this March, Germany and Brazil helped to spearhead UNHRC resolution 28/16, which reaffirmed the basic "rights to privacy in the digital age" and established a "special rapporteur on the right to privacy." This new investigator would report violations of digital privacy to the UNHRC, one of the highest organs of the UN system. While there are a number of watchdogs that fill the same role as this new UN rapporteur, this is the first time this major transnational organization has placed digital privacy in the same pantheon of rights as food security and torture.

However as the announcement by Joachim Ruecker, the German president of the Human Rights Council (UNHRC), proves, digital privacy is not as simple as it seems.

Katrin Nyman-Metcalf, the Head of Research at the Estonian e-Governance Academy, was ranked as the prime candidate by a "consultative group" of five ambassadors: from Poland, Chile, Greece, Algeria and chaired by Saudi Arabia. Now, the second-ranked candidate, Malta's Joseph Cannataci, is slated to take the UN position.

In the past, Nyman-Metcalf had theorized that it was impossible to have total privacy.

"We all see these surveillance scandals and of course that's upsetting, but at the same time there's more and more pressure to do something against terrorism. There are lots of things that are pushing in different directions."

Ultimately, she believed that her denial by Ruecker was because activists "wanted somebody to wave a flag for Snowden."

There is significant pressure from governments over the issue of digital privacy, many of whom view digital surveillance as a vital tool in the apprehension of potential terrorists or other wrong doers. Many activists view the issue as black or white - either everybody has privacy or nobody does. They claim there's no grey area, no way for a government to find "terrorists and child pornographers" without violating the rights of innocent people's privacy.

Legally, across the world, there is no consensus on data privacy. In Europe, EU regulations mean that the right to digital privacy is heavily regulated and actively enforced. However, in the United States, there is an imbroglio of legislation that leave major loop-holes and flaws in the country's data privacy scheme. The situation is even worse in developing nations, like in India, where the government has done little to protect digital rights, let alone privacy.

The narrative of digital privacy has very few real "knights in shining armor." When it was revealed that the NSA was spying on prominent German figures and companies, the German public reacted with a massive outcry; Angela Merkel announced that "spying among friends -- that is simply not done." Two years later there are a fresh new accusations of spying, but this time it's Berlin's own foreign intelligence arm, the BND. Working in conjunction with the NSA, the BND supposedly monitored European officials and turned a blind eye to further NSA activity.

As the full extent of cyber-intelligence is slowly revealed across the globe, the more the public is beginning to understand how complex this issue is. For many governments, cyber-intelligence seems a "damned if they do, damned if they don't" kind of issue.

While the basic desire to include digital privacy in the forefront of human rights is a welcomed step by the UN, it's clear that there's much to do on defining the boundaries of this norm. As the internet becomes the primary vehicle of information and data in the 21st century, this issue will become even more pressing. Hopefully the UN will be able to sort these growing pains out, and make a major step forward into normalizing digital privacy rights across the globe.