Centre for Internet & Society

These principles were developed by Privacy International and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and seek to define an international standard for the surveillance of communications. The Centre for Internet and Society has been contributing feedback to the principles.

The principles are still in draft form. The most recent version can be accessed here. This research was undertaken as part of the 'SAFEGUARDS' project that CIS is undertaking with Privacy International and IDRC.

Our goal is that these principles will provide civil society groups, industry, and governments with a framework against which we can evaluate whether current or proposed surveillance laws and practices are consistent with human rights. We are concerned that governments are failing to develop legal frameworks to adhere to international human rights and adequately protect communications privacy, particularly in light of innovations in surveillance laws and techniques.

These principles are the outcome of a consultation with experts from civil society groups and industry across the world. It began with a meeting in Brussels in October 2012 to address shared concerns relating to the global expansion of government access to communications. Since the Brussels meeting we have conducted further consultations with international experts in communications surveillance law, policy and technology.[1]

We are now launching a global consultation on these principles. Please send us comments and suggestions by January 3rd 2013, by emailing rights (at) eff (dot) org.

Privacy is a fundamental human right, and is central to the maintenance of democratic societies. It is essential to human dignity and it reinforces other rights, such as freedom of expression and association, and is recognised under international human rights law.[2] Activities that infringe on the right to privacy, including the surveillance of personal communications by public authorities, can only be justified where they are necessary for a legitimate aim, strictly proportionate, and prescribed by law.[3]

Before public adoption of the Internet, well-established legal principles and logistical burdens inherent in monitoring communications generally limited access to personal communications by public authorities. In recent decades, those logistical barriers to mass surveillance have decreased significantly. The explosion of digital communications content and information about communications, or “communications metadata”, the falling cost of storing and mining large sets of data, and the commitment of personal content to third party service providers make surveillance possible at an unprecedented scale.[4]

While it is universally accepted that access to communications content must only occur in exceptional situations, the frequency with which public authorities are seeking access to information about an individual’s communications or use of electronic devices is rising dramatically—without adequate scrutiny. [5] When accessed and analysed, communications metadata may create a profile of an individual's private life, including medical conditions, political and religious viewpoints, interactions and interests, disclosing even greater detail than would be discernible from the content of a communication alone. [6] Despite this, legislative and policy instruments often afford communications metadata a lower level of protection and do not place sufficient restrictions on how they can be subsequently used by agencies, including how they are data-mined, shared, and retained.

It is therefore necessary that governments, international organisations, civil society and private service providers articulate principles establishing the minimum necessary level of protection for digital communications and communications metadata (collectively "information") to match the goals articulated in international instruments on human rights— including a democratic society governed by the rule of law. The purpose of these principles is to:

  1. Provide guidance for legislative changes and advancements related to communications and communications metadata to ensure that pervasive use of modern communications technology does not result in an erosion of privacy.
  2. Establish appropriate safeguards to regulate access by public authorities (government agencies, departments, intelligence services or law enforcement agencies) to communications and communications metadata about an individual’s use of an electronic service or communication media.

We call on governments to establish stronger protections as required by their constitutions and human rights obligations, or as they recognize that technological changes or other factors require increased protection.

These principles focus primarily on rights to be asserted against state surveillance activities. We note that governments are required not only to respect human rights in their own conduct, but to protect and promote the human rights of individuals in general.[7] Companies are required to follow data protection rules and yet are also compelled to respond to lawful requests. Like other initiatives,[8] we hope to provide some clarity by providing the below principles on how state surveillance laws must protect human rights.

The Principles

Legality: Any limitation to the right to privacy must be prescribed by law. Neither the Executive nor the Judiciary may adopt or implement a measure that interferes with the right to privacy without a previous act by the Legislature that results from a comprehensive and participatory process. Given the rate of technological change, laws enabling limitations on the right to privacy should be subject to periodic review by means of a participatory legislative or regulatory process

Legitimate Purpose: Laws should only allow access to communications or communications metadata by authorised public authorities for investigative purposes and in pursuit of a legitimate purpose, consistent with a free and democratic society.

Necessity: Laws allowing access to communications or communications metadata by authorised public authorities should limit such access to that which is strictly and demonstrably necessary, in the sense that an overwhelmingly positive justification exists, and justifiable in a democratic society in order for the authority to pursue its legitimate purposes, and which the authority would otherwise be unable to pursue. The onus of establishing this justification, in judicial as well as in legislative processes, is on the government.

Adequacy: Public authorities should restrain themselves from adopting or implementing any measure of intrusion allowing access to communications or communications metadata that is not appropriate for fulfillment of the legitimate purpose that justified establishing that measure.

Competent Authority: Authorities capable of making determinations relating to communications or communications metadata must be competent and must act with independence and have adequate resources in exercising the functions assigned to them.

Proportionality: Public authorities should only order the preservation and access to specifically identified, targeted communications or communications metadata on a case-by-case basis, under a specified legal basis. Competent authorities must ensure that all formal requirements are fulfilled and must determine the validity of each specific attempt to access or receive communications or communications metadata, and that each attempt is proportionate in relation to the specific purposes of the case at hand. Communications and communications metadata are inherently sensitive and their acquisition should be regarded as highly intrusive. As such, requests should at a minimum establish a) that there is a very high degree of probability that a serious crime has been or will be committed; b) and that evidence of such a crime would be found by accessing the communications or communications metadata sought; c) other less invasive investigative techniques have been exhausted; and d) that a plan to ensure that the information collected will be only that information reasonably related to the crime and that any excess information collected will be promptly destroyed or returned. Neither the scope of information types, the number or type of persons whose information is sought, the amount of data sought, the retention of that data held by the authorities, nor the level of secrecy afforded to the request should go beyond what is demonstrably necessary to achieve a specific investigation.

Due process: Due process requires that governments must respect and guarantee an individual’s human rights, that any interference with such rights must be authorised in law, and that the lawful procedure that governs how the government can interfere with those rights is properly enumerated and available to the general public.[9]While criminal investigations and other considerations of public security and safety may warrant limited access to information by public authorities, the granting of such access must be subject to guarantees of procedural fairness. Every request for access should be subject to prior authorisation by a competent authority, except when there is imminent risk of danger to human life. [10]

User notification: Notwithstanding the notification and transparency requirements that governments should bear, service providers should notify a user that a public authority has requested his or her communications or communications metadata with enough time and information about the request so that a user may challenge the request. In specific cases where the public authority wishes to delay the notification of the affected user or in an emergency situation where sufficient time may not be reasonable, the authority should be obliged to demonstrate that such notification would jeopardize the course of investigation to the competent judicial authority reviewing the request. In such cases, it is the responsibility of the public authority to notify the individual affected and the service provider as soon as the risk is lifted or after the conclusion of the investigation, whichever is sooner.

Transparency about use of government surveillance: The access capabilities of public authorities and the process for access should be prescribed by law and should be transparent to the public. The government and service providers should provide the maximum possible transparency about the access by public authorities without imperiling ongoing investigations, and with enough information so that individuals have sufficient knowledge to fully comprehend the scope and nature of the law, and when relevant, challenge it. Service providers must also publish the procedure they apply to deal with data requests from public authorities.

Oversight: An independent oversight mechanism should be established to ensure transparency of lawful access requests. This mechanism should have the authority to access information about public authorities' actions, including, where appropriate, access to secret or classified information, to assess whether public authorities are making legitimate use of their lawful capabilities, and to publish regular reports and data relevant to lawful access. This is in addition to any oversight already provided through another branch of government such as parliament or a judicial authority. This mechanism must provide – at a minimum – aggregate information on the number of requests, the number of requests that were rejected, and a specification of the number of requests per service provider and per type of crime. [11]

Integrity of communications and systems: It is the responsibility of service providers to transmit and store communications and communications metadata securely and to a degree that is minimally necessary for operation. It is essential that new communications technologies incorporate security and privacy in the design phases. In order, in part, to ensure the integrity of the service providers’ systems, and in recognition of the fact that compromising security for government purposes almost always compromises security more generally, governments shall not compel service providers to build surveillance or monitoring capability into their systems. Nor shall governments require that these systems be designed to collect or retain particular information purely for law enforcement or surveillance purposes. Moreover, a priori data retention or collection should never be required of service providers and orders for communications and communications metadata preservation must be decided on a case-by-case basis. Finally, present capabilities should be subject to audit by an independent public oversight body.

Safeguards for international cooperation: In response to changes in the flows of information and the technologies and services that are now used to communicate, governments may have to work across borders to fight crime. Mutual legal assistance treaties (MLATs) should ensure that, where the laws of more than one state could apply to communications and communications metadata, the higher/highest of the available standards should be applied to the data. Mutual legal assistance processes and how they are used should also be clearly documented and open to the public. The processes should distinguish between when law enforcement agencies can collaborate for purposes of intelligence as opposed to sharing actual evidence. Moreover, governments cannot use international cooperation as a means to surveil people in ways that would be unlawful under their own laws. States must verify that the data collected or supplied, and the mode of analysis under MLAT, is in fact limited to what is permitted. In the absence of an MLAT, service providers should not respond to requests of the government of a particular country requesting information of users if the requests do not include the same safeguards as providers would require from domestic authorities, and the safeguards do not match these principles.

Safeguards against illegitimate access: To protect individuals against unwarranted attempts to access communications and communications metadata, governments should ensure that those authorities and organisations who initiate, or are complicit in, unnecessary, disproportionate or extra-legal interception or access are subject to sufficient and significant dissuasive penalties, including protection and rewards for whistleblowers, and that individuals affected by such activities are able to access avenues for redress. Any information obtained in a manner that is inconsistent with these principles is inadmissible as evidence in any proceeding, as is any evidence derivative of such information.

Cost of surveillance: The financial cost of providing access to user data should be borne by the public authority undertaking the investigation. Financial constraints place an institutional check on the overuse of orders, but the payments should not exceed the service provider’s actual costs for reviewing and responding to orders, as such would provide a perverse financial incentive in opposition to user’s rights.



  • Article 19 (International)
  • Bits of Freedom (Netherlands)
  • Center for Internet & Society India (CIS India)
  • Derechos Digitales (Chile)
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation (International)
  • Privacy International (International)
  • Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (Canada)
  • Statewatch (UK)


  • Renata Avila, human rights lawyer (Guatemala)


    [1]For more information about the background to these principles and the process undertaken, see https://www.privacyinternational.org/blog/towards-international-principles-on-communications-surveillance
    [2]Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 12, United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers Article 14, UN Convention of the Protection of the Child Article 16, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 17; regional conventions including Article 10 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Article 11 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 4 of the African Union Principles on Freedom of Expression, Article 5 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Article 21 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Free Expression and Access to Information, Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality.
    [3]Martin Scheinin, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism,” p11, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/terrorism/rapporteur/docs/A_HRC_13_37_AEV.pdf. See also General Comments No. 27, Adopted by The Human Rights Committee Under Article 40, Paragraph 4, Of The International Covenant On Civil And Political Rights, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.9, November 2, 1999, available at http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/0/6c76e1b8ee1710e380256824005a10a9?Opendocument.
    [4]Communications metadata may include information about our identities (subscriber information, device information), interests, including medical conditions, political and religious viewpoints (websites visited, books and other materials read, watched or listened to, searches conducted, resources used), interactions (origins and destinations of communications, people interacted with, friends, family, acquaintances), location (places and times, proximities to others); in sum, logs of nearly every action in modern life, our mental states, interests, intentions, and our innermost thoughts.
    [5]For example, in the United Kingdom alone, there are now approximately 500,000 requests for communications metadata every year, currently under a self-authorising regime for law enforcement agencies, who are able to authorise their own requests for access to information held by service providers. Meanwhile, data provided by Google’s Transparency reports shows that requests for user data from the U.S. alone rose from 8888 in 2010 to 12,271 in 2011.
    [6]See as examples, a review of Sandy Petland’s work, ‘Reality Mining’, in MIT’s Technology Review, 2008, available at http://www2.technologyreview.com/article/409598/tr10-reality-mining/ and also see Alberto Escudero-Pascual and Gus Hosein, ‘Questioning lawful access to traffic data’, Communications of the ACM, Volume 47 Issue 3, March 2004, pages 77 - 82.
    [7]Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, May 16 2011, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/17session/a.hrc.17.27_en.pdf
    [8]The Global Network Initiative establishes standards to help the ICT sector protect the privacy and free expression of their users. See http://www.globalnetworkinitiative.org/
    [9]As defined by international and regional conventions mentioned above.
    [10]Where judicial review is waived in such emergency cases, a warrant must be retroactively sought within 24 hours.
    [11]One example of such a report is the US Wiretap report, published by the US Court service. Unfortunately this applies only to interception of communications, and not to access to communications metadata. See http://www.uscourts.gov/Statistics/WiretapReports/WiretapReport2011.aspx. The UK Interception of Communications Commissioner publishes a report that includes some aggregate data but it is does not provide sufficient data to scrutinise the types of requests, the extent of each access request, the purpose of the requests, and the scrutiny applied to them. See http://www.intelligencecommissioners.com/sections.asp?sectionID=2&type=top.

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