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Open data initiatives must factor in privacy rights, UN expert warns


26 October 2018

NEW YORK (26 October 2018) - A UN human rights expert has urged the state and private sectors to review and discontinue some of the ways they currently share information stored on computer networks – known as open data initiatives – saying people’s privacy was being put at serious risk. 

“Data is and will remain a key economic asset, like capital and labour. Similarly, it needs proper management and respect for lawful obligations,”  the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Joe Cannataci, said to the UN General Assembly.

“Some data practices by public and private sectors are leading to distrust among individuals and communities” he said. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica revelations, for example, have increased unwillingness of users to provide personal information.

Cannataci pointed to the rising risks of large-scale privacy breaches from re-identification of data sets published online under open data initiatives, citing as an example, the 2016 online release from a 10 percent sample of Australians who had claimed national health care benefits. The dataset affecting about 2.9 million Australians was reportedly downloaded 1,500 times before being taken offline following reports of re-identification, initially of doctors, and later, of patients.

Poor data practices lead individuals to avoid public services, or to provide incomplete or inaccurate information, which undermines data quality (including the accuracy of machine-learning algorithms), and potentially sees poor societal outcomes, the Special Rapporteur said.

The Special Rapporteur said that the impact on privacy of releasing any government information has to be carefully assessed before making it public, and completely avoided if the information can be associated to particular individuals. Reporting on a consultation held in Australia in mid 2018, the Special Rapporteur said the release of government information as unit level data, and of personal data unable to be disclosed safely in aggregate form, should cease.

Cannataci advocated for Indigenous Data Sovereignty calling on governments and corporations to recognise the sovereignty of indigenous peoples over data.

The Special Rapporteur is recommending an international framework with consistent data protections and rules for transnational access, for example in law enforcement, or for multi-national corporations managing data flows internally. In the interim all UN member States should ratify data protection Convention 108+ using CETS223*, and immediately implement safeguards for personal data collected for surveillance and other national security purposes. UN Member states outside the EU are encouraged to also incorporate the safeguards found in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation which are not mandatory under Convention 108+.

Cannataci said governments must review the adequacy of legal and policy frameworks on artificial intelligence, and prevent erosion of human rights emerging from the use of algorithms, automated processing and machine learning.

The Special Rapporteur invited Member States to participate in an online consultation on gender perspectives of the right to privacy in the digital era.  Submissions are open till 30 November 2018.

Note: * Protocol amending the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data.


Mr. Joseph Cannataci (Malta) was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy by the Human Rights Council in July 2015, with his mandate being renewed in 2018 until July 2021. 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 organisation and serve in their individual capacity. 

For more information and media inquiries, please contact:Jon Izagirre Garcia (+41 22 917 97 15 / [email protected])

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact:Jeremy Laurence, UN Human Rights Media Unit (+41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human