The UN Cybercrime Draft Convention is a Blank Check for Surveillance Abuses

Deeplinks 2024-06-14


This is the first post in a series highlighting the problems and flaws in the proposed UN Cybercrime Convention. Check out our detailed analysis on the criminalization of security research activities under the proposed convention.

The United Nations Ad Hoc Committee is just weeks away from finalizing a too-broad Cybercrime Draft Convention. This draft would normalize unchecked domestic surveillance and rampant government overreach, allowing serious human rights abuses around the world.

The latest draft of the convention—originally spearheaded by Russia but since then the subject of two and a half years of negotiations—still authorizes broad surveillance powers without robust safeguards and fails to spell out data protection principles essential to prevent government abuse of power.

As the August 9 finalization date approaches, Member States have a last chance to address the convention’s lack of safeguards: prior judicial authorization, transparency, user notification, independent oversight, and data protection principles such as transparency, minimization, notification to users, and purpose limitation. If left as is, it can and will be wielded as a tool for systemic rights violations.

Countries committed to human rights and the rule of law must unite to demand stronger data protection and human rights safeguards or reject the treaty altogether. These domestic surveillance powers are critical as they underpin international surveillance cooperation.

EFF’s Advocacy for Human Rights Safeguards

EFF has consistently advocated for human rights safeguards to be a baseline for both the criminal procedural measures and international cooperation chapters. The collection and use of digital evidence can implicate human rights, including privacy, free expression, fair trial, and data protection. Strong safeguards are essential to prevent government abuse.

Regrettably, many states already fall short in these regards. In some cases, surveillance laws have been used to justify overly broad practices that disproportionately target individuals or groups based on their political views—particularly ethnic and religious groups. This leads to the suppression of free expression and association, the silencing of dissenting voices, and discriminatory practices. Examples of these abuses include covert surveillance of internet activity without a warrant, using technology to track individuals in public, and monitoring private communications without legal authorization, oversight, or safeguards.

The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has already sounded the alarm about the dangers of current surveillance laws, urging states to revise and amend these laws to comply with international human rights norms and standards governing the rights to privacy, free expression, peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. The UN Cybercrime Convention must be radically amended to avoid entrenching and expanding these existing abuses globally. If not amended, it must be rejected outright.

How the Convention Fails to Protect Human Rights in Domestic Surveillance

The idea that checks and balances are essential to avoid abuse of power is a basic “Government 101” concept. Yet throughout the negotiation process, Russia and its allies have sought to chip away at the already-weakened human rights safeguards and conditions outlined in Article 24 of the proposed Convention. 

Article 24 as currently drafted requires that every country that agrees to this convention must ensure that when it creates, uses, or applies the surveillance powers and procedures described in the domestic procedural measures, it does so under its own laws. These laws must protect human rights and comply with international human rights law. The principle of proportionality must be respected, meaning any surveillance measures should be appropriate and not excessive in relation to the legitimate aim pursued.

Why Article 24 Falls Short?

1. The Critical Missing Principles

While incorporation of the principle of proportionality in Article 24(1) is commendable, the article still fails to explicitly mention the principles of legality, necessity, and non-discrimination, which hold equivalent status to proportionality in human rights law relative to surveillance activities. A primer:

  • The principle of legality


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Katitza Rodriguez

Date tagged:

06/14/2024, 12:31

Date published:

06/14/2024, 07:47