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Global coalition stands against unchecked surveillance

UPDATE from EFF: Human rights and privacy groups launch global action to oppose mass surveillance (26 November 2013)

Around 200 organisations from across the globe - including Privacy International, Access, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) - are taking a stand against unchecked communications surveillance, calling for the governments around the world to follow international human rights law and curtail pervasive spying.

The groups have all signed the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance - 13 basic principles that spell out how existing human rights law applies to modern digital surveillance. Written in response to the increasing number of government surveillance standards that focus on law enforcement and "national security" priorities instead of citizens' rights, the principles include advice on how surveillance laws should respect the law, due process, and include public oversight and transparency. Current debates over government surveillance are often limited by outmoded definitions of content versus metadata, or stored data versus data in transit. The principles released today concentrate on the core issue: how human rights protect all information that reveals private information about an individual's communications.

"It's time to restore human rights to their place at the very heart of the surveillance debate," said EFF International Director Danny O'Brien. "Widespread government spying on communications interferes with citizens' ability to enjoy a private life, and to freely express themselves - basic rights we all have. But the mass metadata collected in the U.S. surveillance program, for example, makes it extraordinarily easy for the government to track what groups we associate with and why we might contact them. These principles announced today represent a global consensus that modern surveillance has gone too far and must be restrained."

The organisations signing the principles come from more than 40 different countries. The principles will be used to advocate for a change in how present laws are interpreted, and new laws are crafted.

"International human rights law binds every country across the globe to a basic respect for freedom of expression and personal privacy," said EFF International Rights Director Katitza Rodriguez. "The pervasiveness of surveillance makes standing up for our digital rights more important than ever. And we need those rights to survive in a digital world, where any state can spy on us all, in more detail than ever before. We know that surveillance laws need to be transparent and proportionate, with judicial oversight, and that surveillance should only be used when absolutely necessary. Everything we've heard about the NSA programs indicates that they fall far outside these international human rights principles."

How the Principles were developed:

For some time now there has been a need to update understandings of existing human rights law to reflect modern surveillance technologies and techniques. Nothing could demonstrate the urgency of this situation more than the recent revelations confirming the mass surveillance of innocent individuals around the world.

To move toward that goal, we're pleased to announce today, 31 July 2013, the formal launch of the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. The principles articulate what international human rights law - which binds every country across the globe - require of governments in the digital age. They speak to a growing global consensus that modern surveillance has gone too far and needs to be restrained. They also give benchmarks that people around the world can use to evaluate and push for changes in their own legal systems.

The product of over a year of consultation among civil society, privacy and technology experts (read here, here, here and here), the principles have already been co-signed by over hundred organisations from around the world. The process was led by Privacy International, Access, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The release of the principles comes on the heels of a landmark report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, which details the widespread use of state surveillance of communications, stating that such surveillance severely undermines citizens' ability to enjoy a private life, freely express themselves and enjoy their other fundamental human rights. And recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nivay Pillay, emphasised the importance of applying human right standards and democratic safeguards to surveillance and law enforcement activities.

"While concerns about national security and criminal activity may justify the exceptional and narrowly-tailored use of surveillance programmes, surveillance without adequate safeguards to protect the right to privacy actually risk impacting negatively on the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms," Pillay said.

The principles, summarised below, can be found in full at Over the next year and beyond, groups around the world will be using them to advocate for changes in how present laws are interpreted and how new laws are crafted.

We encourage privacy advocates, rights organisations, scholars from legal and academic communities, and other members of civil society to support the principles by adding their signature.

To sign, please send an email to rights (@), or click here, where you can see the full list of signatories.

Summary of the 13 principles

  • Legality: Any limitation on the right to privacy must be prescribed by law.
  • Legitimate Aim: Laws should only permit communications surveillance by specified State authorities to achieve a legitimate aim that corresponds to a predominantly important legal interest that is necessary in a democratic society.
  • Necessity: Laws permitting communications surveillance by the State must limit surveillance to that which is strictly and demonstrably necessary to achieve a legitimate aim.
  • Adequacy: Any instance of communications surveillance authorised by law must be appropriate to fulfill the specific legitimate aim identified.
  • Proportionality: Decisions about communications surveillance must be made by weighing the benefit sought to be achieved against the harm that would be caused to users' rights and to other competing interests.
  • Competent judicial authority: Determinations related to communications surveillance must be made by a competent judicial authority that is impartial and independent.
  • Due process: States must respect and guarantee individuals' human rights by ensuring that lawful procedures that govern any interference with human rights are properly enumerated in law, consistently practiced, and available to the general public.
  • User notification: Individuals should be notified of a decision authorising communications surveillance with enough time and information to enable them to appeal the decision, and should have access to the materials presented in support of the application for authorisation.
  • Transparency: States should be transparent about the use and scope of communications surveillance techniques and powers.
  • Public oversight: States should establish independent oversight mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability of communications surveillance.
  • Integrity of communications and systems: States should not compel service providers, or hardware or software vendors to build surveillance or monitoring capabilities into their systems, or to collect or retain information.
  • Safeguards for international cooperation: Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) entered into by States should ensure that, where the laws of more than one State could apply to communications surveillance, the available standard with the higher level of protection for users should apply.
  • Safeguards against illegitimate access: States should enact legislation criminalising illegal communications surveillance by public and private actors.

IFEX Members signed on to the Principles already:

Electronic Frontier Foundation
Privacy International
ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency
Adil Soz - International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Association for Civil Rights
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression
Association of Caribbean Media Workers
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Center for Media Studies & Peace Building
Foundation for Press Freedom - FLIP
Fundamedios - Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study
Human Rights Watch
Independent Journalism Center - Moldova
Index on Censorship
Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey
Journaliste en danger
Media Rights Agenda
National Union of Somali Journalists
Observatorio Latinoamericano para la Libertad de Expresión - OLA
Pacific Freedom Forum
Pacific Islands News Association
Pakistan Press Foundation
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
PEN International
Public Association "Journalists"
Reporters Without Borders
Southeast Asian Press Alliance
South East European Network for Professionalization of Media
West African Journalists Association
What other IFEX members are saying