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Urgent action needed to protect privacy in cyberspace

GENEVA (6 March 2018) – International action is needed to protect privacy in cyberspace, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy has told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Joseph Cannataci, who is exploring avenues for protecting cyberspace privacy, said it was both urgent and essential for States to act together, as the issue crossed national borders and lay “at the intersection of privacy and security interests”.

“Cyberpeace also depends on States’ willingness and ability to work together on achieving synergy between security interests and privacy in cyberspace,” said Mr. Cannataci. “Regulating surveillance in cyberspace therefore also advances prospects for cyberpeace.”

The Special Rapporteur continued: “Unfortunately, there is no one piece of national surveillance legislation which perfectly complies with and respects the right to privacy.

“Domestic oversight mechanisms for the surveillance of communications and internet use do not always exist, and where they do, they are frequently ineffective and do not provide adequate transparency and accountability.

“This state of affairs is bedevilled by problems of jurisdiction which clearly show that concerted action by UN member states is needed, most probably in the form of an international legal instrument designed to respect and protect the right to privacy in cyberspace especially in relation to State behaviour on the internet.”

The Special Rapporteur has led the development of a draft legal instrument on government-led surveillance, which covers general principles and basic requirements, including mechanisms for trans-border access to personal data. However, it is anticipated that it will take several more years of international efforts before such a document receives the necessary consensus.

Mr. Cannataci stressed his belief that the global community needed to take urgent action to develop a clear and comprehensive legal framework on privacy and surveillance in cyberspace in order that the right to privacy was respected within individual countries and across national borders.

The Special Rapporteur has asked the Human Rights Council to recommend to the UN General Assembly that fresh vigour be applied to developing a more comprehensive legal framework for the internet at the intersection of privacy and security, thus resolving a number of outstanding problems including jurisdiction.

The Special Rapporteur’s report also highlighted the situation of citizens who have had their privacy grievously breached with no means of remedy and, in its annexes, includes a preliminary report on Big Data and Open Data, an overview of gaps in privacy protection and the current version of a draft legal instrument on privacy and surveillance co-developed with the EU-supported MAPPING Project.


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 organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

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