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The United Nations' top human rights body agreed on Thursday to appoint a special investigator to probe digital spying and violations of online privacy. Brazil and Germany spearheaded the resolution, which voiced deep concern over electronic surveillance and the interception of digital communications, as well as data collection by governments and private companies. Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents two years ago that exposed mass surveillance of private emails and phone data across the world. Brazil's government fell out with Washington at the time over revelations that the NSA had eavesdropped on President Dilma Rousseff. Snowden has said the U.S. also carried out large-scale electronic espionage in Germany. "States must respect international human rights obligations regarding the right to privacy when they intercept digital communication of individuals and/or collect personal data," Brazil's ambassador Regina Dunlop told the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The Geneva forum, whose 47 members include the United States, adopted the text unanimously. U.S. ambassador Keith Harper said Washington had backed the call for an investigator because it has long championed human rights domestically and internationally. The U.N. council said the special rapporteur, who has not yet been selected, would have three years to document violations and urged all states to cooperate with the new mandate.
Eileen Donahoe, a former U.S. human rights ambassador now with Human Rights Watch, said the New York-based activist group hoped the move "marks the beginning of a serious global reckoning with mass surveillance and its effects." ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar called the announcement "a big victory for privacy and human rights." He added: "It comes at critical time when people around the world are looking for robust safeguards against privacy abuses by governments."
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