In an age where reports of mass surveillance by governments are practically a daily occurrence, can people still trust that their rights to privacy are protected in a digital world? That's the question asked by Germany and Brazil when the two countries introduced a draft resolution calling for the UN to address electronic surveillance.
The draft resolution was introduced to the UN committee that oversees human rights, and recognises that while technological advancement has enhanced the capacity of governments to collect information, it also may be cause for concern: "Illegal surveillance of communications, their interception and the illegal collection of personal data constitute a highly intrusive act that violates the right to privacy and freedom of expression and may threaten the foundations of a democratic society," the resolution says.
According to German representative to the UN Peter Wittig, a line between valid security concerns and intrusion needs to be drawn. "Today there seem to be hardly any technical limitations for accessing, storing or combining personal data. But, should everything that is technically feasible also be allowed?" he said in a statement.
"Where do we draw the line between legitimate security interests and the individual right to privacy?"
If the resolution passes a committee vote later this month, it will go before the UN General Assembly in December.
Restoring lost trust (with an elephant in the room)
The draft resolution calls upon all member states to review their surveillance practices with an eye towards protecting human rights, and to create oversight mechanisms that will ensure better transparency. However, it doesn't specifically address the elephant in the room: the data collection practices by the US that have come to light because of recent NSA leaks.
However, both in Germany and Brazil, these issues have created some new tensions between government officials and their counterparts in the US, in addition to spurring a set of potential changes.
Recently, Brazil's president has called for the country to begin insulating its internet communications from the US; while in Germany, internet service providers have rolled out encrypted email services, and one company has even begun taking steps to keep domestic internet traffic within the country's borders.
Furthermore, in the wake of the NSA revelations — and amid reports that US intelligence services may have tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone — the heads of the German intelligence services recently went to Washington DC to investigate. Upon their return (with promises of a full review by the US government), the German government says that things are on the right track.
"I believe we have a good chance of putting cooperation between Germany and the USA on a new footing with respect to intelligence work," the head of the federal chancellory's chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, said.
He said this gives the country an opportunity "to restore lost trust".