New UN report highlights the impact new technologies have on the right to protest

News & Analysis

At a time where the mass surveillance of protests has been at the forefront, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a timely report on the impact of new technologies on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of assemblies, including peaceful protests. (hyperlink to report)

The new report highlights the strong ties between protest and privacy and warns that “…the use of some such technologies to surveil or crack down on protesters can lead to human rights violations, including infringement of the right to peaceful assembly.”

The new report confirmed what PI had emphasised in its submission that unlawful interference with someone’s privacy, particularly in the form of communication surveillance, may have a significant, negative impact in the capacity of individuals to exercise their right to peaceful protest.

These new technologies range from IMSI catchers which are used to intercept communications to facial recognition tools which are used to identify individuals participating in peaceful protests.

These technologies and the chilling effect they have on the exercise of the right to protest are discussed in detail in this episode of our Technology Pill podcast.

Some of the key points of the report include:

  • Confirmation that safe and confidential communications play a key role in the planning and holding of peaceful protests
  • An acknowledgment that online surveillance technologies and interference in communications often lead to harassment and intimidation
  • A realisation that the use of encryption and other technical measures which promote anonymity, are important in ensuring the enjoyment of the right to protest
  • A reminder that private sector players involved in the development of new technologies that are used to monitor the activities of civil society actors have a responsibility to respect human rights. As well as an obligation to act in line with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The report concludes by recommending that States:

  • Never use facial recognition technology to identify those peacefully participating in an assembly
  • Ensure that any interference with the right to privacy, including by communications surveillance and intelligence-sharing, complies with international human rights law, including the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality
  • Refrain from recording footage of assembly participants, unless there are concrete indications that participants are engaging in, or will engage in, serious criminal activity, and such recording is provided by law, with the necessary robust safeguards
  • Prohibit the use of surveillance techniques for the indiscriminate and untargeted surveillance of those exercising the right of peaceful assembly and association, both in physical spaces and online
  • Ensure that an assessment of the risk of human rights violations and abuses facilitated by surveillance technology is a key factor in decisions on export licences
  • Put in place strict privacy and data protection laws that regulate the collection, retention, analysis and otherwise processing of personal data, including facial templates

The report is a positive step towards minimising the harms new technologies pose to the exercise of fundamental rights such as the right to protest.

However, there is still need to determine the standards and conditions for the deployment of new surveillance technologies, focusing on specific technologies such as IMSI catchers and facial recognition to ensure compliance with human rights standards.

There is need to address the issue of peaceful protest online and in particular to ensure that limitations are imposed to the use of SOCMINT techniques and technologies both for state and non-state actors.