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Spyware and surveillance: Threats to privacy and human rights growing, UN report warns

During the fifty-first session, the Human Rights Council enacted the Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and report of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General.

The report “The right to privacy in the digital age” warned about the fact that people’s right to privacy is coming under ever greater pressure from the use of modern networked digital technologies whose features make them formidable tools for surveillance, control and oppression. This makes it more essential that these technologies are reined in by effective regulation based on international human rights law and standards. The report looks at three key areas: the abuse of intrusive hacking tools (“spyware”) by State authorities; the key role of robust encryption methods in protecting human rights online; and the impacts of widespread digital monitoring of public spaces, both offline and online. The report recognized that “While purportedly being deployed for combating terrorism and crime, such spyware tools have often been used for illegitimate reasons, including to clamp down on critical or dissenting views and on those who express them, including journalists, opposition political figures and human rights defenders.”

Urgent steps are needed to address the spread of spyware, the report flags, reiterating the call for a moratorium on the use and sale of hacking tools until adequate safeguards to protect human rights are in place.
The report also raises the alarm about the growing surveillance of public spaces. Previous practical limitations on the scope of surveillance have been swept away by large-scale automated collection and analysis of data, as well as new digitized identity systems and extensive biometric databases that greatly facilitate the breadth of such surveillance measures. New technologies have also enabled the systematic monitoring of what people are saying online, including through collecting and analysing social media posts. The report emphasises that States should limit public surveillance measures to those “strictly necessary and proportionate”, focused on specific locations and time. There is also an immediate need to restrict the use of biometric recognition systems in public spaces.