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US could do more on privacy rights, UN rapporteur concludes after official visit

GENEVA / WASHINGTON (27 June 2017) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy has praised parts of the US system of privacy protection, but called for further reform in a number of areas including surveillance, health data, and searches conducted at its borders.

Joe Cannataci, ending his first official visit to the US, said: “As a result of its history, the United States has, especially over the past 40 years, developed a fairly robust, complex and sophisticated system of safeguards to ensure that the right to privacy is respected in surveillance activities.

“But there are areas where these safeguards need to be improved further. For example, US laws and practices permitting a lower level of privacy protection for people who are not USA citizens or residents are incompatible with the USA’s obligations under international law.”

Mr. Cannataci also expressed concern over the USA’s use of mass surveillance, as opposed to techniques targeting individual suspects.

“Mass surveillance has not been satisfactorily demonstrated to be effective and is contrary to the principles of proportionality and necessity as established under international law,” said the Special Rapporteur.

He said the US had a good chance to amend its practices, as powers to monitor communications contained in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were due to be reconsidered.

“The fact that these provisions are expiring soon provides a useful opportunity to re-think surveillance legislation and make it more effective and compliant with international law,” Mr. Cannataci said.

“Given its history in the protection of civil liberties, the US must reclaim its leadership role and be an example to the rest of the world in the protection of the right to privacy. Its unparalleled influence and technological capabilities should be equalled by leading the reinforcement of the protection of the right to privacy protection within and outside its borders in line with international law.”

Regarding health data, the Special Rapporteur expressed concern that the current legislation was not extensive enough. “Twenty years after the introduction of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, there are whole areas of data relating to an individual’s health which are not covered by this law,” he noted.

“For example, data is being generated by fitness trackers and genetic information is being collected by some companies offering genealogy services. There needs to be a thorough reconsideration of the protection given to all data linked to a person’s health.”  

During his nine-day visit, the expert travelled to Washington DC, New York, Chicago, Sacramento and San Francisco, where he met officials at Federal, State and local levels, representatives of civil society, businesses and academics. The independent expert will present a comprehensive report containing his findings and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2018.


Prof. Joseph Cannataci
 (Malta) was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy by the Human Rights Council in July 2015. He is an academic who has had a pioneering role in the development on data protection, privacy law and technology law. A UK Chartered Information Technology Professional & Fellow of the British Computer Society, he also continues to act as Expert Consultant to a number of international organisations.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page: United States

Full end of mission statement: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Privacy/SR_Privacy/VisitUSA_EndStatementJune2017.docx

For more information and media inquiries, please contact Jon Izagirre Garcia (+41 22 917 79 15 /jizagirre@ohchr.org)

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