UN Privacy Chief: Surveillance “Worse Than Orwell Could Ever Have Imagined”

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UN Privacy Chief Joseph Cannataci is calling for a “Geneva convention style law” for the internet to “safeguard data and combat the threat of massive clandestine digital surveillance.”

Cannataci told the Guardian that government surveillance oversight in places like the U.K. “is a joke,” and said the modern electronic surveillance-state is worse than anything George Orwell could have imagined.

“Some people were complaining because they couldn’t find me on Facebook [or] Twitter,” Cannataci said. “But since I believe in privacy, I’ve never felt the need for it.”

As the first appointed UN privacy chief – who garnered the position after the Snowden leaks – Cannataci will set digital privacy standards and is able 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.

Cannataci says there are at least four main areas he would like to focus on – including a universal law on surveillance, tackling the business models of the big tech corporations who mine and share data, defining a standard on privacy, and raising awareness among the public.

“I would say it’s impossible to achieve [this] 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,” Cannataci said. “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”

Cannataci says the global Big Brother surveillance apparatus is “worse [than Orwell]” and said, “if you look at CCTV(video surveillance) alone, at least Winston [from 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.”

Today however, Cannataci said, “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.”