Centre for Internet & Society

On 10th September 2015, the OGP Support Unit, the Open Government Guide, and the World Bank held a webinar on “Open Governance and Privacy in a Post-Snowden World” presented by Carly Nyst, Independent consultant and former Legal Director of Privacy International and Javier Ruiz, Policy Director of Open Rights Group. This is a summary of the key issues that were discussed by the speakers and the participants.

See Open Governance and Privacy in a Post-Snowden World


The webinar discussed how Government surveillance has become an important and key issue in the 21st century, thanks to Edward Snowden. The main concern raised was with respect to what a democracy should look like in the present day. Should the states’ use of technology enable state surveillance or an open government? Typically, there is a balance that must be achieved between the privacy of an individual and the security of the state – particularly as the former is primarily about social rights and collective interest of citizens.

At the international level, the right to privacy has been recognized as a basic human right and an enabler of other individual freedoms. This right encapsulates protection of personal data where citizens have the authority to choose whether to share or reveal their personal data or not. Due to technological advancement that has enabled collection, storage and sharing of personal data, the right to privacy and data protection frameworks have become of utmost importance and relevance with regard to open government efforts. Therefore, it is important for Governments to be transparent in handling sensitive data that they collect and use.

Many countries have also introduced laws to balance the right to privacy and right to information.  The role of the private sector and NGOs involved in enabling an open and transparent government must also be duly addressed at a national level.

Key Questions:

  • Why should the government release information?

There are multiple reasons for doing so including:

For the purposes of research and public policy (which relates to healthcare, social issues, economics, national statistics, census, etc.)

Transparency and accountability (politicians, registers, public expenses, subsidies, fraud, court records, education)

Public participation and public services (budgets, anti-corruption, engagement, and e-governance).

However, all these have certain risks and privacy implications:

  1. Risk of identification of individual: Any individual whose information is released has the risk of identification, followed by issues like identity theft, discrimination, stigmatization or repression. Normally, the solution for this would be anonymization of the data; however, this is not an absolute solution. Privacy laws can generally cope with such risks, but with pseudonymous data it becomes difficult in preventing identification.
  2. Profiling of social categories which can lead to discrimination: In such a situation, policies and other legislations regulating the use of data and providing remedy for violations can help.
  3. Exploitation and unfair/unethical use of information: When understanding the potential exploitation of information it is useful to consider who is going to benefit from the release of information.  For example, in UK, with respect to release of Health Data, the main concern is that people and companies will benefit commercially from the information released, despite of the result potentially being improved drugs and treatment.
  • What are the Solutions?

The webinar also discussed potential solutions to the questions and challenges posed. For example, when commitments of Open Government Data Partnership are considered, privacy legislations must also be proposed. Further, key stakeholders must make commitments to take pro-active measures to reduce informational asymmetries between the state and citizens.  To reduce the risks, measures must be taken to publish what information the State has or what the Government knows about the citizens. For example, in UK, within the civil society network, it is being duly considered in the national plan that the government will publicize how it will share data and have a centralized view on the process of information handling and usage of the data.

The Open Government Guide provides for Illustrative Commitments like enactment of data protection legislation, establishing programmes for awareness and assessment of their impact, giving citizens control of their personal information and the right to redress when that information is misused, etc.


The issue of surveillance and the role of privacy in an open government context was also discussed.  The need for creating a balance between the legitimate interest of national security and the privacy of individuals was emphasized. With the rise of digital technologies, many governmental measures pertaining to surveillance intervene in individual privacy. There are many forms of surveillance and this has serious privacy implications, especially in developing countries. For example:

  1. Communications surveillance
  2. Visual surveillance
  3. Travel surveillance

This raises the question: When is surveillance legitimate and when must it be allowed?

The International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance acts as a soft law and tries to set out what a good surveillance system looks like by ensuring that governments are in compliance with international human rights law.

In essence surveillance does not violate privacy, however, there must be a clear and foreseeable legal framework laying circumstances when the government has the power to collect data and when individuals might be able to foresee when they might be under surveillance.

Also, a competent judicial authority must be established to oversee surveillance and keep a check on executive power by placing restrictions on privacy invasions. The actions of the government must be proportionate and the benefits must not outweigh harm caused by surveillance.

Role of openness in a “mass surveillance” state

Surveillance measures that are being undertaken by governments are increasingly secretive. The European court of Human Rights has held that Secret surveillance may undermine democracy under the cloak of protecting it. Hence, open government and openness will work towards protecting privacy and not undermining it.

To balance the measure of government surveillance with privacy, there is a need to publish laws regulating such powers; publish transparency reports about surveillance, interception and access to communications data; reform legislations relating to surveillance by state agencies to ensure it complies with human rights and establish safeguards to ensure that new technologies used for surveillance and interception respect the right to privacy.


The conclusion one can draw is that Privacy concerns have gained importance in today’s data driven world. The main question that needs to be answered is whether Government’s should adopt surveillance measures or adopt an Open Government?

Considering equal importance of national security and privacy of individuals, it is required that a balance must be crafted between the two. This could be possibly done by enacting foreseeable and clear laws outlining scope of surveillance by the Government on one hand, and informing citizens about such measures on the other. Establishment of a competent judicial authority to keep a check on Government actions is also suggested to work out the delicate balance between surveillance and privacy.

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