UN to appoint watchdog to focus on privacy in digital age

The Human Rights Council of the United Nations has voted in favor of a resolution backed by Germany and Brazil to appoint an independent watchdog or ‘special rapporteur’ to monitor privacy rights in the digital age.

The council said Thursday that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, including the right to privacy.

The proposed appointment of the rapporteur is likely to be mainly symbolic as the official’s functions will be mainly advisory. But it reflects continuing concerns around the world about privacy in the wake of disclosures of U.S. surveillance by former National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden.

The resolution refers to the deep concern of the Human Rights Council at the negative impact on the exercise of human rights of surveillance or interception of communications both within countries and abroad, and of the collection of personal data, in particular when carried out on a mass scale.

German officials said in October 2013 that U.S. intelligence agencies may have spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. There were also reports that the U.S. also spied on Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff among other political leaders.

The vote on Thursday was clearly prompted by concern over U.S. surveillance practices and the security of digital information, said the American Civil Liberties Union. The civil rights group said this was evident from ACLU’s meetings with the sponsors of the resolution and from the text of the document.

“Our hope is that the Human Rights Council resolution marks the beginning of a serious global reckoning with mass surveillance and its effects,” said Eileen Donahoe, director of global affairs at Human Rights Watch in a statement.

The new watchdog will, among other things, report on alleged violations of the right to privacy, and raise awareness concerning the importance of promoting and protecting the right to privacy, with a special reference to challenges arising in the digital age. The council has called upon all states to cooperate with the rapporteur, including by providing the information requested.

In November last year, a U.N. panel approved a resolution that would have the General Assembly call on states to respect and protect the right to privacy in the digital age.

The draft resolution, titled “Right to privacy in the digital age,” also had Brazil and Germany as the main sponsors.

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