The first UN privacy chief has said the world needs a Geneva convention style law for the internet to safeguard data and combat the threat of massive clandestine digital surveillance.
Speaking to the Guardian weeks after his appointment as the UN special rapporteur on privacy, Joseph Cannataci described British surveillance oversight as being “a joke”, and said the situation is worse than anything George Orwell could have foreseen.
He added that he doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter, and said it was regrettable that vast numbers of people sign away their digital rights without thinking about it.
“Some people were complaining because they couldn’t find me on Facebook. They couldn’t find me on Twitter. But since I believe in privacy, I’ve never felt the need for it,” Cannataci, a professor of technology law at University of Groningen in the Netherlands and head of the department of Information Policy & Governance at the University of Malta, said.
Appointed after concern about surveillance and privacy following the Edward Snowden revelations, Cannataci agreed that his notion of a new universal law on surveillance could embarrass those who may not sign up to it. “Some people may not want to buy into it,” he acknowledged. “But you know, if one takes the attitude that some countries will not play ball, then, for example, the chemical weapons agreement would never have come about.”
Cannataci came into his new post in July after a controversial spat involving the first-choice candidate, Katrin Nyman-Metcalf, who the Germans in particular thought might not be tough enough on the Americans.
But for Cannataci – well-known for having a mind of his own – it is not America but Britain that he singles out as having the weakest oversight in the western world: “That is precisely one of the problems we have to tackle. That if your oversight mechanism’s a joke, and a rather bad joke at its citizens’ expense, for how long can you laugh it off as a joke?”
He said proper oversight is the only way of progressing, and hopes more people will think about and vote for privacy in the UK. “And that is where the political process comes in,” he said, “because can you laugh off the economy and the National Health Service? Not in the UK election, if you want to survive.”
The appointment of a UN special rapporteur on privacy is seen as hugely important because it elevates the right to privacy in the digital age to that of other human rights. As the first person in the job, the investigator will be able to set the standard for the digital right to privacy, deciding how far to push governments that want to conduct surveillance for security reasons, and corporations who mine us for our personal data.
Cannataci’s mandate is extensive. He is empowered to:
- Systematically review government policies and laws on interception of digital communications and collection of personal data.
- Identify actions that intrude on privacy without compelling justification.
- Assist governments in developing best practices to bring global surveillance under the rule of law.
- Further articulate private sector responsibilities to respect human rights.
- Help ensure national procedures and laws are consistent with international human rights obligations.
Although Cannataci admits his job is a complex one that is not going to be solved with a magic bullet, he says he is far from starting from scratch and believes there are at least four main areas – including a universal law on surveillance, tackling the business models of the big tech corporations, defining privacy and raising awareness among the public.