Surveillance and Its Human Rights Implications


This month, January 2016, United Nations human rights experts called for a review of the United Kingdom’s (UK) Investigatory Powers bill. This bill is thought by these experts to pose a threat to the freedom of expressions both inside and outside the country. This bill aims to bring together regulations of the UK surveillance agencies and other authorities that hold the power to monitor criminal suspects. The main concern of the committee is the, “excessively broad definitions and disproportionate procedures to authorize surveillance, including mass surveillance, and data retention without adequate independent oversight and transparency”. This lack of transparency could also, “prevent individuals from ever knowing they are subject to such surveillance…. Ultimately stifl[ing] fundamental freedoms and exert[ing] a deterrent effect on the legitimate exercise of these rights and the work of civil society and human rights defenders”.

The question is, to what extent is security more important than the fundamental rights of citizens? Perhaps people should not be worried about surveillance as long as they have nothing to hide. Or should they? Although it is very important to be secure and a way to do that is through surveillance, at what point is a government infringing on the rights of the people?

There is also confusion as to where the line needs to be drawn. Security, whether through surveillance or other means, is both a way to prevent wrongdoing and prevent fear. It is often understood, in contemporary times, that people should have basic fundamental rights, like freedom of expression and perhaps some form of privacy, as well as freedom from fear. Security is meant to help with both of these, but at the same time can infringe on both if not kept within a proper balance. This issue, for the foreseeable future, will escalate as long as hostile state and non-state groups (like ISIL) are a threat.

The question we need to understand is whether “human rights” are indeed a right or a privilege. Regardless of the answer, governments need to be careful not to violate the law and therefore the rights that it grants citizens. As the UN committee stated, there needs to be a certain amount of transparency to these types of bills. At the very least people need to be aware of the law and regulations in the environment in which they live. In addition, they should be aware of the powers and abilities the governments hold and should be able to gauge if those powers are to their benefit or if they are overstepping boundaries. In the case of the UK, as in many other states, the broad and ambiguous vocabulary put forth in the surveillance bill causes concern for the amount of power the government holds over its people and what that means for the rights that same government has granted. Surveillance can be a great tool/resource for the security of the state and is a necessity, but what we need to find out is, to what degree?