EU must balance cyber-security and right to privacy

Written by Tunne Kelam and Erping Zhang on 9 December 2015

The digital era has brought about both security and privacy concerns, but legislators must be careful not to infringe on people's right to information, write Tunne Kelam and Erping Zhang.

Amidst the recent media hype surrounding cyber hackings against individuals as well as sovereign states, the balance between security and privacy is a grave concern in this digital era. In many parts of the world, digital censorship and suppression of free information is on the increase. 

Resolution 59 (1), adopted in 1946 by the UN at its first session, states that "Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … (is) … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the UN is consecrated." 

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is explicit: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers." 


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In 2000, Estonia became the first state to pass a law that recognises access to internet as a human right. Since then, the Estonian government has extended digital access to the entire population of the country. 

In 2012, the UN human rights council reaffirmed the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet. The internet is playing an increasingly influential role in advancing empowerment, transparency, and accountability around the world. This is particularly true in promoting civil society, democracy and a more equitable socio-economic development.

While many netizens around the world struggle for access to the internet on a daily basis, they also worry about cyber users' privacy and security. The dichotomy lies in the user's desire to be free and feel secure at the same time. 

In the EU, there is a need to strike an appropriate balance between ensuring citizens' freedom, access to information and privacy while at the same time protecting them, state institutions and critical infrastructures. 

It is the duty of the EU to mainstream the issue of guaranteeing human rights in internet in its external policy. As online censorship is extensively used by Russia, China, Iran and several other governments, the EU should commit itself to contribute more strongly to ending such arbitrary intrusion into the individual’s right to free internet and privacy. 

Silicon Valley start-ups have long been deploying powerful, free tools to overcome censorship and defend the right to privacy. Programmes such as Ultrasurf and Free Gate were developed to circumvent the digital firewalls in closed societies, enabling millions of users to have free access to uncensored information from outside their countries. 

At the same time, China leads the world in designing the most sophisticated firewall and surveillance systems, completely blocking information on the Tiananmen 1989 massacre, criminal harvesting of human organs at the expense of lives of Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners of conscience. 

As well as hacking Western states, China routinely exports its firewall technology to other closed, authoritarian societies. The international community should guard itself against this threat from China and other rogue states. 

Within the EU, cyber security needs to be strengthened by making cross-border cooperation and information exchange more efficient and by significantly increasing cyber resilience. 

At the same time, the right to freedom of information and adequate privacy remains essential for global, as well as individual, security. This is particularly important in those countries governed by authoritarian regimes, where the demands to exercise such a right is growing louder and more urgent. 

The EU and other democratic powers must demonstrate their commitment to ensuring the implementation of freedom of information, not merely through declarations but also through concrete actions. 

About the author

Tunne Kelam (EPP, EE) is a member of Parliament's security and defence committee

Erping Zhang is Director of the Association for Asian Research

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