GENEVA / WASHINGTON (27 June 2017) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy has praised parts of the US system of privacy protection, but called for further reform in a number of areas including surveillance, health data, and searches conducted at its borders.

Joe Cannataci, ending his first official visit to the US, said: “As a result of its history, the United States has, especially over the past 40 years, developed a fairly robust, complex and sophisticated system of safeguards to ensure that the right to privacy is respected in surveillance activities.

“But there are areas where these safeguards need to be improved further. For example, US laws and practices permitting a lower level of privacy protection for people who are not USA citizens or residents are incompatible with the USA’s obligations under international law.”

Mr. Cannataci also expressed concern over the USA’s use of mass surveillance, as opposed to techniques targeting individual suspects.

“Mass surveillance has not been satisfactorily demonstrated to be effective and is contrary to the principles of proportionality and necessity as established under international law,” said the Special Rapporteur.

He said the US had a good chance to amend its practices, as powers to monitor communications contained in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were due to be reconsidered.

“The fact that these provisions are expiring soon provides a useful opportunity to re-think surveillance legislation and make it more effective and compliant with international law,” Mr. Cannataci said.

“Given its history in the protection of civil liberties, the US must reclaim its leadership role and be an example to the rest of the world in the protection of the right to privacy. Its unparalleled influence and technological capabilities should be equalled by leading the reinforcement of the protection of the right to privacy protection within and outside its borders in line with international law.”

Regarding health data, the Special Rapporteur expressed concern that the current legislation was not extensive enough. “Twenty years after the introduction of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, there are whole areas of data relating to an individual’s health which are not covered by this law,” he noted.

“For example, data is being generated by fitness trackers and genetic information is being collected by some companies offering genealogy services. There needs to be a thorough reconsideration of the protection given to all data linked to a person’s health.”  

During his nine-day visit, the expert travelled to Washington DC, New York, Chicago, Sacramento and San Francisco, where he met officials at Federal, State and local levels, representatives of civil society, businesses and academics. The independent expert will present a comprehensive report containing his findings and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2018.


You can find the official press release here.