The global counter-terrorism agenda is driven by a group of powerful governments and industry with a vested political and economic interest in pushing for security solutions that increasingly rely on surveillance technologies at the expenses of human rights. 


What Is The Problem

The global counter-terrorism agenda is driven by a group of powerful governments and industry with a vested political and economic interest in pushing for security solutions that increasingly rely on surveillance technologies at the expenses of human rights. To facilitate the adoption of these measures, a plethora of bodies, groups and networks of governments and other interested private stakeholders develop norms, standards and ‘good practices’ which often end up becoming hard national laws or binding international obligations.

Why it matters

Many counter-terrorism resolutions by the UN Security Council are legally binding on all states. That means that governments around the world must implement measures such as intelligence sharing; systems to collect and share biometric data; mass retention of personal information of passengers (via Passenger Name Records); collecting and sharing ever more granular data of individual and organisation's financial transactions to monitor and track their activities.

Since 2001 at least 140 countries have adopted counter-terrorism legislation. These laws, and related measures are often in response to decisions made by the UN Security Council and other international bodies. They often erode human rights and affect the most vulnerable.

There are major strategic and political factors at play. Powerful states - originally led by the US but increasingly by the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and supported by China - push for the adoption of policies at a global level that support a security approach to counter-terrorism with little or no regard for the human rights implications. Some Western democracies use the cover of having to comply with international, or European, policies to adopt measures at the domestic level that encroach on human rights. Many other states seek and receive financial, logistical, and other kinds of support implement the counter-terrorism measures required by the UN and other international bodies. Meanwhile powerful corporate players, such as the surveillance industry, are active in supporting the implementation of data-intensive solutions, which put the privacy of individuals and the security of their data at risk.

The UN global strategy on counter-terrorism and specific Security Council resolutions routinely pay some lip service to human rights, for example demanding states to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms when implementing counter-terrorism measures. This language is tokenistic at best. It offers no guidance on how the far-reaching counter-terrorism measures can be implemented in ways that comply with human rights.

When it comes to intelligence sharing, identification systems based on biometrics, and the regulation of financial transactions , governments and companies regularly overplay the security benefits and the efficacy of technologically driven solutions and underplay the negative impacts on individuals and society. They often choose to ignore any human rights assessment on the effectiveness of these measures to combat terrorism.

In fact, the whole international counter-terrorism structure is designed to side-line human rights and to avoid scrutiny. Decisions are taken by small group of states in secret, with no consultation with civil society or other actors.

What Is The Solution

Privacy International recognises that surveillance measures and international cooperation can play a role in preventing and investigating acts of terrorism. But counter-terrorism cannot be a human rights free zone. It also cannot be left to be decided by those with a vested interest in pursuing widespread surveillance of society and adopting technological solutions that ultimately put security at risk. Just like for any interference with the right of privacy it must be accordance with the law, necessary, and proportionate.

There needs to be:

  • specific, detailed human rights guidelines provided to states in implementing measures such as intelligence sharing, biometric data systems, and imposing financial data processing;
  • transparent and independent privacy and security assessments prior to the introduction of measures that, in the name of countering terrorism, interfere with individual's privacy and other human rights;
  • a more transparent process of conducting reviews of states' implementation of UN counter-terrorism measures (e.g. the Security Council Committee on counter-terrorism), with the participation of civil society (e.g. the opportunity to provide briefings in advance of country's assessments);
  • human rights assessment prior to any UN endorsement of guidelines and recommendations adopted by bodies such as FATF.

What PI Is Doing

We are:

  • campaigning for stronger privacy protections in international counter-terrorism policy making;
  • supporting the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights;
  • advocating for changes in UN Security Council resolutions on counter-terrorism, including demanding specific human rights assessments and adopting human rights safeguards;
  • advocating for more transparency in international decision making on these issues by bodies like the Financial Action Task Force and for the meaningful involvement of civil society actors