United Nations member states unanimously adopted a symbolic resolution Thursday that declares a worldwide right of individuals to online privacy, a slap at the U.S. National Security Agency’s massive surveillance programs that have angered Washington’s friends and foes alike.
The resolution urges an end to digital dragnets, without naming the countries known to be making the collections that rights advocates consider intrusive. It also calls on the world body’s human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, to report on “the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance.”
Pillay this year referred to the case of indicted NSA leaker Edward Snowden as evidence of the need for countries to protect those who reveal human rights violations. Snowden, who fled the United States in the spring in fear of reprisal, has been charged in absentia with three felonies in connection with his leaking of classified information on domestic and foreign data sweeps.
“The right to privacy, the right to access to information and freedom of expression are closely linked,” Pillay said in defense of whistleblowers. “The public has the democratic right to take part in the public affairs, and this right cannot be effectively exercised by solely relying on authorized information.”
Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia in August, absconded from his NSA contract job in Honolulu in April with computer data files showing U.S. collection of phone, text and email records of millions of people worldwide.
The disclosures spurred widespread denunciation of the NSA programs, which included monitoring of the personal cellphones of the Brazilian and German leaders. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington to underscore her country’s dismay.
A U.S. federal judge ruled this week that the NSA data collections were probably in violation of constitutional protections against government intrusion on personal liberty.
On Tuesday, the Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo published an open letter from Snowden in which the 30-year-old fugitive expressed his surprise and pleasure at the global outpouring of support for his action in revealing the secret NSA snooping. He also offered to help Brazil combat foreign data collection if he were to be granted permanent asylum there.
Rousseff told journalists Wednesday that she hadn’t seen the letter and couldn’t comment on it. But the president of Brazil’s Senate Foreign Relations and Defense Committee, Ricardo Ferraco, was reported by the Associated Press to be lobbying in favor of granting asylum to Snowden.
Rousseff would make any final decision on the fugitive’s request for refuge, a granting of which another Brazilian government official told the AP would be “highly unlikely.”
The U.N. General Assembly resolution served as an expression of pique by the countries targeted by U.S. surveillance, as well as tacit recognition that they can do little to force its end.
Thursday’s resolution, drafted by Brazil and Germany, observes that “concerns about public security may justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information,” alluding to the counter-terrorism objectives claimed by U.S. officials.
But the measure also asks member countries to ensure “transparency” of the domestic forces conducting the surveillance and “accountability” for the personal data collected.
While the resolution spotlighted what member states have identified as abusive surveillance practices by the United States, it has no legally binding force.
Snowden has been keeping a low profile in Russia since being granted asylum, and he is not known to have made additional disclosures of NSA practices while in Russia. New details have been reported by the Guardian and the Washington Post, though, based on information Snowden reportedly left with reporters before fleeing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had made Snowden’s silence a condition of his asylum. During the five weeks that the fugitive was stranded at Moscow’s main international airport, Putin said Snowden would not be allowed to stay if he continued leaking classified information that was harmful to “our American partners.”
Putin on Thursday described Snowden as “noble” for his role in exposing NSA surveillance excesses but said he hadn’t met or spoken with the American.
“Thanks to Snowden, a lot has changed in the minds of people around the world, including politicians,” Putin said during his annual yearend press conference. “And this is certainly his merit.”
Putin said, however, that the surveillance was being done primarily to combat terrorism and was “on the whole” a necessity.