Surveillance from the margins

19 Dec 2017 10:45h - 11:45h

Event report

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This session, moderated by Ms Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion, Advocacy Officer, Privacy International, featured discussions on the diffuse nature of surveillance and the particular kinds of surveillance experienced by marginalised groups (due to their race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation or ability).

Mr David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, introduced the discussion by emphasising the impact of surveillance on national and local communities. Since 2013 and the Snowden revelations, the conversation on surveillance has focused mainly on the large-scale intelligence operations conducted by states, without respect to the right to privacy of individuals. But over the years, there has also been an increasing awareness regarding the targeted surveillance that is also carried out. This type of surveillance is supported by individual companies, mainly based in Western Europe, supplying intrusion and spyware technologies to repressive governments worldwide. There is a great need for having a better understanding of who is impacted by this kind of targeted surveillance, how they are impacted, and what kind of regulatory mechanisms should be put in place to deal with the spread of this type of technology.

Ms Joana Varon, Founder and Director of Coding Rights, then presented the situation of surveillance in Brazil, especially in the wake of mega-events (Football World Cup, Olympic Games), and its impact on social movements and human rights defenders. Indeed, in preparation for these international events, the Brazilian authorities introduced new legislation regarding terrorism and crimes, which gave substantial power and resources to existing and new law enforcement agencies. This led to increasing surveillance of social media and interception of Brazilians’ communications, without any adequate framework for data protection and oversight mechanisms. This new legal apparatus was used to target dissent and social movements in the context of these mega-events, and remain in place until today.

Ms Nighat Dad, Founder and Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation, discussed another facet of surveillance, social surveillance in the context of Pakistan. Debates on surveillance generally focus on practices of states and large companies, but surveillance can also be embedded in communities. Surveillance in certain conservative societies starts from home, at the individual level. Gender and sexual minorities suffer from this type of surveillance in Pakistan, especially since they are often not provided with the possibility to protest and fight against the tight control of society and moral policing.

Finally, Ms Amalia Toledo, Project Coordinator and researcher, Karisma Foundation, focused on the specific situation of women journalists in Colombia and the impact of online digital harassment and surveillance on their work. In Colombia, even though threats against journalists have become recognised, this is less the case when it comes to gender-based violence and harassment online. Women journalists are often targeted by online surveillance, as demonstrated by recent focus groups conducted by Karisma Foundation with journalists in Colombia. These women indicated for instance that these online campaigns of intimidation led them to close their social media accounts, or even to leave journalism. This situation shows how technology can be used to compromise women’s right to privacy and freedom of expression, and highlights the need to empower them and develop standards for protecting minorities and marginalised groups.

By  Clément Perarnaud