The 35th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners wraps up today in Warsaw, Poland. The conference has become an important annual event, facilitating greater global cooperation on privacy and providing the commissioners with a venue to speak out on key privacy issues. This year, the commissioners issued one declaration (on the “appification” of society) and nine resolutions. The resolutions cover a wide range of issues including profiling, international enforcement, anchoring privacy in international law, and web tracking.
Yet despite the enormous public attention to surveillance issues over the past few months, there are no specific resolutions on the issue. In fact, surveillance is only mentioned once, in a resolution on openness of personal data practices which urges organizations to be more open about their practices and adds that governments should do the same. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission abstained from voting on the resolution due to the reference to governments. The U.S. may have been particularly uncomfortable with the final paragraph in the explanatory note:
Recent revelations about government surveillance programs have prompted calls for greater openness with respect to the scope of these programs, increased oversight and accountability of these programs and more transparency from the private sector organisations that are required to provide personal data to governments. The revelations have also occasioned debate about the appropriate level of transparency associated with such programs in light of relevant national security, public safety and public policy considerations.
The abstention highlights the challenge global privacy commissioners face in finding consensus on surveillance concerns. Interestingly, while the commissioners struggled to tackle the surveillance issue, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff had no hesitation in addressing the issue directly at the United Nations, where she argued:
In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy. In the absence of the respect for sovereignty, there is no basis for the relationship among nations.
The strong speech recognized that there is a need to speak out loudly on surveillance. It is discouraging that the world’s privacy and data protection commissioners seemed to struggle to do so and faced U.S. opposition to the only reference to the issue.