Back to News & Commentary

Privacy Rights are Human Rights

Steven M. Watt,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Human Rights Program
Share This Page
March 13, 2014

Today and tomorrow the United Nations Human Rights Committee will review the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To assist in the review of U.S. compliance with the covenant’s privacy protections, the American Civil Liberties Union today released a report, “Privacy in the Digital Age,” which interprets how Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should protect privacy in an age where technology enables mass surveillance. Article 17 protects everyone from arbitrary or unlawful interferences with their “privacy, family, home or correspondence” from state intrusion. The ACLU urges the Human Rights Committee to issue a new interpretation of Article 17 that fully protects the privacy of everyone from governments everywhere.

This piece originally ran at Defense One.

Since the summer, Americans have learned that the National Security Agency has routinely violated their right to privacy for more than a decade. The world, however, learned they had no such right, whatsoever—at least in so far as the U.S. is concerned—as more and more of the NSA’s worldwide surveillance apparatus was revealed. Months later, the global uproar over NSA surveillance, fueled by stories of the NSA tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone, led President Barack Obama to concede that everyone should be afforded some level of privacy from U.S. spying.

“[U.S.] intelligence activities must take into account that all persons should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their nationality or wherever they might reside,” the president said in January, “and that all persons have legitimate privacy interests in the handling of their personal information.”

President Obama’s recognition of privacy as a human right, however deficient, isn’t new. It’s actually the law. In 1992, the U.S. ratified the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty that guarantees privacy rights. More specifically, Article 17 protects everyone from arbitrary or unlawful interferences with their “privacy, family, home or correspondence.”

What these protections mean today in our digital age of mass surveillance by the NSA and other intelligence agencies has been one of the many issues considered in Geneva this week, as the U.N. Human Rights Committee –a group of independent human rights experts tasked with overseeing compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—reviews the U.S.’s human rights record, both at home and overseas. Indeed, the right to privacy, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, is one of the most pressing issues facing the committee during its 110th session.

To continue reading “Privacy Rights are Human Rights,” click here.

Learn more about government surveillance and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page