The United Nations’ top official for counter-terrorism and human rights (known as the “Special Rapporteur”) issued a formal report to the U.N. General Assembly today that condemns mass electronic surveillance as a clear violation of core privacy rights guaranteed by multiple treaties and conventions. “The hard truth is that the use of mass surveillance technology effectively does away with the right to privacy of communications on the Internet altogether,” the report concluded.

Central to the Rapporteur’s findings is the distinction between “targeted surveillance” — which “depend[s] upon the existence of prior suspicion of the targeted individual or organization” — and “mass surveillance,” whereby “states with high levels of Internet penetration can [] gain access to the telephone and e-mail content of an effectively unlimited number of users and maintain an overview of Internet activity associated with particular websites.” In a system of “mass surveillance,” the report explained, “all of this is possible without any prior suspicion related to a specific individual or organization. The communications of literally every Internet user are potentially open for inspection by intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the States concerned.”

Mass surveillance thus “amounts to a systematic interference with the right to respect for the privacy of communications,” it declared. As a result, “it is incompatible with existing concepts of privacy for States to collect all communications or metadata all the time indiscriminately.”

In concluding that mass surveillance impinges core privacy rights, the report was primarily focused on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty enacted by the General Assembly in 1966, to which all of the members of the “Five Eyes” alliance are signatories. The U.S. ratified the treaty in 1992, albeit with various reservations that allowed for the continuation of the death penalty and which rendered its domestic law supreme. With the exception of the U.S.’s Persian Gulf allies (Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar), virtually every major country has signed the treaty.

Article 17 of the Covenant guarantees the right of privacy, the defining protection of which, the report explained, is “that individuals have the right to share information and ideas with one another without interference by the State, secure in the knowledge that their communication will reach and be read by the intended recipients alone.”

The report’s key conclusion is that this core right is impinged by mass surveillance programs: “Bulk access technology is indiscriminately corrosive of online privacy and impinges on the very essence of the right guaranteed by article 17. In the absence of a formal derogation from States’ obligations under the Covenant, these programs pose a direct and ongoing challenge to an established norm of international law.”

The report recognized that protecting citizens from terrorism attacks is a vital duty of every state, and that the right of privacy is not absolute, as it can be compromised when doing so is “necessary” to serve “compelling” purposes. It noted: “There may be a compelling counter-terrorism justification for the radical re-evaluation of Internet privacy rights that these practices necessitate. ”

But the report was adamant that no such justifications have ever been demonstrated by any member state using mass surveillance: “The States engaging in mass surveillance have so far failed to provide a detailed and evidence-based public justification for its necessity, and almost no States have enacted explicit domestic legislation to authorize its use.”

Instead, explained the Rapporteur, states have relied on vague claims whose validity cannot be assessed because of the secrecy behind which these programs are hidden: “The arguments in favor of a complete abrogation of the right to privacy on the Internet have not been made publicly by the States concerned or subjected to informed scrutiny and debate.”

About the ongoing secrecy surrounding the programs, the report explained that “states deploying this technology retain a monopoly of information about its impact,” which is “a form of conceptual censorship … that precludes informed debate.” A June report from the High Commissioner for Human Rights similarly noted “the disturbing lack of governmental transparency associated with surveillance policies, laws and practices, which hinders any effort to assess their coherence with international human rights law and to ensure accountability.”

The rejection of the “terrorism” justification for mass surveillance as devoid of evidence echoes virtually every other formal investigation into these programs. A federal judge last December found that the U.S. Government was unable to “cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.” Later that month, President Obama’s own Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies concluded that mass surveillance “was not essential to preventing attacks” and information used to detect plots “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”

Three Democratic Senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee wrote in The New York Times that “the usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated” and “we have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security.” A study by the centrist New America Foundation found that mass metadata collection “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism” and, where plots were disrupted, “traditional law enforcement and investigative methods provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case.” It labeled the NSA’s claims to the contrary as “overblown and even misleading.”

While worthless in counter-terrorism policies, the UN report warned that allowing mass surveillance to persist with no transparency creates “an ever present danger of ‘purpose creep,’ by which measures justified on counter-terrorism grounds are made available for use by public authorities for much less weighty public interest purposes.” Citing the UK as one example, the report warned that, already, “a wide range of public bodies have access to communications data, for a wide variety of purposes, often without judicial authorization or meaningful independent oversight.”

The report was most scathing in its rejection of a key argument often made by American defenders of the NSA: that mass surveillance is justified because Americans are given special protections (the requirement of a FISA court order for targeted surveillance) which non-Americans (95% of the world) do not enjoy. Not only does this scheme fail to render mass surveillance legal, but it itself constitutes a separate violation of international treaties (emphasis added):

The Special Rapporteur concurs with the High Commissioner for Human Rights that where States penetrate infrastructure located outside their territorial jurisdiction, they remain bound by their obligations under the Covenant. Moreover, article 26 of the Covenant prohibits discrimination on grounds of, inter alia, nationality and citizenship. The Special Rapporteur thus considers that States are legally obliged to afford the same privacy protection for nationals and non-nationals and for those within and outside their jurisdiction. Asymmetrical privacy protection regimes are a clear violation of the requirements of the Covenant.

That principle — that the right of internet privacy belongs to all individuals, not just Americans — was invoked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden when he explained in a June, 2013 interview at The Guardian why he disclosed documents showing global surveillance rather than just the surveillance of Americans: “More fundamentally, the ‘US Persons’ protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%.

The U.N. Rapporteur was clear that these systematic privacy violations are the result of a union between governments and tech corporations: “States increasingly rely on the private sector to facilitate digital surveillance. This is not confined to the enactment of mandatory data retention legislation. Corporates [sic] have also been directly complicit in operationalizing bulk access technology through the design of communications infrastructure that facilitates mass surveillance. ”

The latest finding adds to the growing number of international formal rulings that the mass surveillance programs of the U.S. and its partners are illegal. In January, the European parliament’s civil liberties committee condemned such programs in “the strongest possible terms.” In April, the European Court of Justice ruled that European legislation on data retention contravened EU privacy rights. A top secret memo from the GCHQ, published last year by The Guardian, explicitly stated that one key reason for concealing these programs was fear of a “damaging public debate” and specifically “legal challenges against the current regime.”

The report ended with a call for far greater transparency along with new protections for privacy in the digital age. Continuation of the status quo, it warned, imposes “a risk that systematic interference with the security of digital communications will continue to proliferate without any serious consideration being given to the implications of the wholesale abandonment of the right to online privacy.” The urgency of these reforms is underscored, explained the Rapporteur, by a conclusion of the United States Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that “permitting the government to routinely collect the calling records of the entire nation fundamentally shifts the balance of power between the state and its citizens.”

Photo: Trevor Paglen