Digital surveillance ‘worse than Orwell’, says new UN privacy chief

Joseph Cannataci describes British oversight as ‘a joke’ and says a Geneva convention for the internet is needed

Joseph Cannataci, UN special rapporteur on privacy, doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter and says it is regrettable people have signed away their digital rights without thinking about it. 

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.

“I would say it’s impossible to achieve in three years. And it’s probably impossible to achieve even if the mandate is renewed to six years, if you’re trying to do too much. But I do think that – at least my view of things in a field like human rights – is the longer term view, right? The impact must be felt in the long term.”

However, Cannataci says we are dealing with a world even worse that anything Orwell could have foreseen. “It’s worse,” he said. “Because if you look at CCTV alone, at least Winston [Winston Smith in Orwell’s novel 1984] was able to go out in the countryside and go under a tree and expect there wouldn’t be any screen, as it was called. Whereas today there are many parts of the English countryside where there are more cameras than George Orwell could ever have imagined. So the situation in some cases is far worse already.

“The way we handle it is going to be the difference. But Orwell foresaw a technology that was controlling. In our case we are looking at a technology that is ever-developing, and ever-developing possibly more sinister capabilities.” Because of this, the Snowden revelations were very important, he said.

“They were very important. Snowden will continue to be looked upon as a traitor by some and a hero by others. But in actual fact his revelations confirmed to many of us who have been working in this field for a long time what has been going on, and the extent to which it has gone out of control.”

Cannataci, who works between his offices in Malta and the Netherlands, has set his sights on challenging the business model of companies that are “very often taking the data that you never even knew they were taking”. “This is one thing that is certainly going to come up in my mandate, which is the business model that large corporations are using,” he said.

“We have a number of corporations that have set up a business model that is bringing in hundreds of thousands of millions of euros and dollars every year and they didn’t ask anybody’s permission. They didn’t go out and say: ‘Oh, we’d like to have a licensing law.’ No, they just went out and created a model where people’s data has become the new currency. And unfortunately, the vast bulk of people sign their rights away without knowing or thinking too much about it,” he said.


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