The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

Malta co-sponsors UN resolution on communications privacy rights

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 7 December 2014, 10:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

Malta has co-sponsored a UN resolution protecting the right to privacy regarding communications in November, this newspaper is informed.

The resolution welcomes the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet. It emphasises that states must respect the right to privacy when intercepting data from private individuals, or collect personal data.

One rather interesting point regards the notion of national security. The resolution reads: "Noting that while concerns about public security may justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information, States must ensure full compliance with their obligations under international human rights law."

It calls upon states to review their procedures, practices and legislation regarding the surveillance of communications, interception and the collection of personal data including mass surveillance, with a view of upholding an individual's rights to privacy.

In the light of this, the UN saw fit to push for remedies should a person's right to privacy be breached. It urges governments to "provide individuals whose right to privacy has been violated by unlawful or arbitrary surveillance with access to an effective remedy".

What could perhaps be the strongest point of the resolution is its call for states to establish and maintain independent judicial, administrative and/or parliamentary domestic oversight mechanisms capable of ensuring transparency, as appropriate, and accountability for State surveillance of communications, their interception and the collection of personal data.

Malta currently has a Security Committee that examines the expenditure, administrationand policy of the Security Service. It is comprised of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, Leader of the Opposition Simon Busuttil, Minister of Home Affairs Manuel Mallia and Foreign Affairs Minister George Vella. Local law states: "The Prime Minister shall lay before the House ofRepresentatives a copy of each annual report made by the SecurityCommittee together with a statement as towhether any matter has been excluded." If the Prime Minister and the Committee decide that the publication of subject matter in a report could be prejudicial to the continued discharge of the Security Services function, then it may be excluded.

Earlier this year, this newsroom had launched a petition calling on the government to release the total number of intercepted data (including phone taps) since 2009, but satisfactory answers were never given. A Home Affairs Ministry spokesperson had said; "Due to security reasons I cannot divulge [this] information."

This newsroom was not asking for names or any personal details but just a number. This UN convention notes that while concerns may justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information, states must ensure full compliance with their obligations under international human rights law.

Last June, an international mobile phone operator published a list of countries, with the total number of intercepted data listed. Countries such as the UK, Germany and Italy published this number, amounting to 2,760, 23,687 and 140,577 warrants given to collect this data (including interception of phone calls etc) respectively. In countries like Albania, Qatar and Malta, the only response was that "it is unlawful to disclose any aspect of how interception is conducted". This had led this newsroom to send the aforementioned question to the Ministry.


Five Eyes intelligence alliance

The resolution passed by consensus in the General Assembly's human rights committee, which meant that it was not put up for a vote. This was a result of behind closed-door negotiations.

This comes following leaks by Edward Snowden regarding communications tapping and interception by the United States. A total of 65 co-sponsors backed the Bill, however the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, known as the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, steered clear.

The European Court of Justice earlier this year gave a landmark judgment in the Digital Rights Ireland case, where it declared null and void the Data Retention Directive, which forced communications operators to store data for certain periods and allowed government agencies to request and access said data.



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