UN rights expert critical of government wiretaps

BERLIN (AP) — A United Nations human rights expert called Tuesday for closer scrutiny of government wiretapping efforts around the world, saying most countries’ laws don’t properly protect free speech.

The U.N.’s independent investigator on freedom of expression warned that while efforts to ensure national security and prevent crimes could justify “exceptional use of communications surveillance,” little was known about the massive amounts of data collected on individuals — including journalists and human rights defenders — who were often unaware that they were being spied upon.

“States should be completely transparent about the use and scope of communications surveillance techniques and powers,” Frank La Rue, a legal scholar from Guatemala, said in a report to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council.

He said states should regularly publish data on the kind of phone and Internet surveillance they conduct, and those who are the subject of them should have the right to be notified afterward. Individuals should also have the right to use encryption technology without having to provide the key to authorities — a move that would provide better privacy than most current forms of communication but could make it harder for law enforcement officials to intercept the phone calls and messages sent by criminals.

La Rue said many countries’ laws don’t clearly define what kind of information authorities are allowed to request, while in other countries legislation is too complicated for most people to properly understand.

To protect against abuse of power, countries should also establish independent bodies to oversee government interception efforts, he said.

La Rue’s report carries no legal weight, but serves as a recommendation that can be endorsed by members of the 47-nation Human Rights Council.

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