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UN Warns on Digital Spying

Report calls for stronger limits on mass spying, to protect human rights.
Report calls for stronger limits on mass spying, to protect human rights.
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A new United Nations report warns that widespread electronic spying threatens people’s right to privacy. The report says this spying happens often instead of rarely.

Navi Pillay is the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Her office wrote the report. She is calling for stronger limits on mass spying, to protect human rights.

The report warns that digital spying is increasing and happens in countries throughout the world. It says it may be more common in countries where the government has good technology. And it says many places do not have enough limits on digital spying. That means such activities could be abused.

Ms. Pillay says states must show that they use their digital spying programs for acceptable legal or intelligence-gathering purposes. She says government officials must show that these programs do not unlawfully gather information about people.

She tells VOA that countries must balance their need for security with the need to protect people’s right to privacy.

“I, of course, support the efforts made in the United States and other countries to safeguard all of us from acts of terrorism. After all, states have an obligation to protect all their citizens against the harm of terrorism. On the other hand, what are the checks and balances? What kind of safeguards should be in place, and how should states be encouraged to update their laws, and so on, to keep pace with these developments?”

The report says many governments use private companies to help them gather intelligence digitally.

Ms. Pillay says she worries about the ways governments use information, both about their own citizens and citizens of other countries.

“Some governments have reportedly threatened to ban services of telecommunications companies unless given direct access to telecommunication traffic. Others have tapped fiber optic cables for surveillance purposes, or required companies systematically to disclose bulk information on customers and employees. Some have used communication surveillance to target political opposition or dissidents.”

Ms. Pillay warns that companies that provide information to a government in violation of human rights law may be found guilty of abuse.

She says she believes it is important to protect people who tell about human rights violations. She would not say if she believes American intelligence specialist Edward Snowden should be pardoned.

Mr. Snowden made public the mass surveillance program operated by the National Security Agency. But she says the information that Mr. Snowden released aids the debate about secrecy. She says we should thank him for that.

She says Mr. Snowden performed a valuable service by telling the public about the issue. She also praised him for urging governments to accept responsibility for their actions.

The UN report also expresses concern about spying aimed at people or groups based on their race, ethnicity or religion. It says such activities violate international human rights law.

This story was based on a VOA News report by Lisa Schlein in Geneva. It was written in Special English by Christopher Cruise, who also narrated the report, and edited by Jeri Watson.