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Surveillance, big data and open data top UN expert’s privacy agenda

NEW YORK (20 October 2017) –Governments must not release any personal data under open data schemes unless privacy safeguards are “bulletproof”, a UN expert on privacy has told the General Assembly in New York.

Special Rapporteur Joe Cannataci said huge amounts of information were being gathered about ordinary citizens without their knowledge or consent.

The impact of so-called “big data” – huge data sets which contain structured or unstructured information – and open data on privacy was alarming, the expert said.

“I am concerned not just by the collection of this information, but that firms have the ability to sell or trade it and to link it to other data to produce a complex and detailed picture of a person’s life,” Mr. Cannataci said.

The Special Rapporteur’s full report to the General Assembly also raises concerns about a vacuum in international law concerning surveillance and privacy in cyberspace. This had to be addressed to protect the rights of billions of citizens, said the Special Rapporteur, who is working on proposals for recommendations or a fully-fledged treaty to close the gap.

“The right to privacy can never be absolute in the fight against crime and in national security, but democracies need checks and balances such as prior authorization of surveillance and the subsequent oversight of these activities, in order to preserve the very freedoms that define democracies,” Mr. Cannataci said.

“I am seeking solutions that will give governments the framework they need to update their national laws, as well as strengthening international law, so that the right to privacy in cyberspace can be respected and surveillance properly controlled.

“If achieved, this new legal instrument will be the most substantial step the UN can take to help Member States, and to advance the protection of a most fundamental human right – the right to privacy.”

His report remains open for public consultation for the next six months and an international conference will be held in Australia in March 2018 to discuss its preliminary conclusions. The Special Rapporteur said he welcomed feedback on ways to integrate the protection of privacy and innovation in the information economy.

ENDS

Prof. Joseph Cannataci (Malta) was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy by the Human Rights Council in July 2015. He is an academic who has had a pioneering role in the development on data protection, privacy law and technology law. A UK Chartered Information Technology Professional & Fellow of the British Computer Society, he also continues to act as Expert Consultant to a number of international organisations.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media inquiries, please contact:
Mr. Jon Izagirre Garcia (+41 22 917 79 15, jizagirre@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Bryan Wilson, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+41 22 917 9826, mediaconsultant2@ohchr.org)

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