Civil Liberties

U.K.-Funded U.N. Document Supports Online Surveillance — Just Like the Brits Want


Government officials don't generally need much encouragement to snoop on people, and they're not especially shy about the practice, either — just look at the Obama administration's continuing argument that legal challenges to domestic spying shouldn't be permitted because they'd expose "state secrets." But a little cover for preferred policies is always helpful, so that politicians can point to "expert" recommendations to justify what they were going to do anyway. That's where a recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime comes in, since it urges politicos hither and yon to impose closer scrutiny and tighter regulations on the Internet.

The concern of the The Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes (PDF) is self-explanatory, and the document, funded by the British government, lays out specific details of how bad guys are exploiting the online world. Specifically, the report says terrorists use the Internet for propaganda, financing, training, planning, execution and cyberattacks. With the exception of cyberattacks, that's how everybody uses the Internet, so that's not much of a stretch.

It's interesting to note though, that the rote hat-tip to civil-liberties concerns inserted in this document is even less enthusiastic than usual, couching the "counter-terrorist" measures it recommends as protections for human rights.

Effective counter-terrorism measures and the protection of human rights are complementary and mutually reinforcing objectives which must be pursued together. …

As noted in subsection B.1(b) above, the proscription of incitement to terrorism may involve restrictions on freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. It may be restricted, subject to satisfaction of strictly construed tests of legality, necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination, when that freedom is used to incite discrimination, hostility or violence. A key difficulty in cases of glorification or incitement to terrorism is identifying where the line of acceptability lies, as this varies greatly from country to country depending on differing cultural and legal histories. The right to freedom of association is similarly a qualified right, which may be subject to narrowly construed limitations and derogations.

Personally, I take that as a "screw-you" to civil libertarians, but maybe I'm over-sensitive that way.

Or maybe I'm not. Among its policy not-quite recommendations (they're couched as citations of what "some governments" have already done), the report discusses rather strict controls on speech and Internet access, and tight scrutiny of online activities.

  • "[T]he Security Council, inter alia, called upon States to criminalize the incitement of terrorist acts. … Some countries have specifically criminalized acts of incitement or glorification of terrorist acts, while others rely upon on inchoate offences such as solicitation or conspiracy."
  • "Authorities will require the cooperation of telecommunications operators when undertaking electronic monitoring, wiretaps and similar electronic investigative technique. It is desirable that Governments provide a clear legal basis for the obligations on private sector parties, including the technical specifications required of their networks and how the cost of providing such capabilities is to be met."
  • "Some Governments have imposed specific duties on operators of Internet cafes for law enforcement purposes (including anti-terrorism) to obtain, retain and, upon request, produce to law enforcement agencies photo identification, addresses and usage/connection data of customers. There is some doubt about the utility of targeting such measures at Internet cafes only when other forms of public Internet access (e.g. airports, libraries and public Wi-Fi hotspots) offer criminals (including terrorists) the same access opportunities and are unregulated."

Data retention plays a major role in the UN report's policy discussions, such as a mention of how Chinese authorities "may order the submission by the Internet-service provider and Internet-communication
provider of relevant records and data, which they are required to retain by law for 60 days."

There is also a heavy emphasis on essentially deputizing the private sector to do the heavy lifting, including leaning on search engines and ISPs to either automatically exclude suspect content to else provide a means of flagging material (as YouTube aready does) for inspection.

It should be noted, by the way, that the British government has been pushing for massive, and expensive, online surveillance legislation. This UN document, which it paid for, would seem to support its efforts.

What a coincidence.