The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age

In the context of the rapid development of the digital world, where technology has become more prevalent and widely used in our daily lives, both personally and professionally, the right to digital privacy has emerged as a crucial and significant human rights issue. Despite the numerous benefits and conveniences brought about by the digital age, it has also introduced complex and substantial challenges concerning the protection of personal information, ensuring data security, and addressing the consequences of surveillance practices. These challenges encompass the involvement of governmental and authoritarian entities in implementing rigorous monitoring systems and utilising advanced techniques to facilitate surveillance and conduct phone/device hacking.

Article 12 of the UDHR states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home, or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” Furthermore, the ICCPR, in Article 17, reiterates the right to privacy and elaborates on safeguarding individuals from any arbitrary or unlawful intrusion into their privacy, family, home, or correspondence. Within the same context, the UN General Assembly Resolution 68/167 (2014) also addresses the crucial matter of “The right to privacy in the digital age.” This resolution emphasizes the significance of preserving the right to privacy in the digital era and urges member states to adopt measures for its protection.

In Oman, the expanded role of the internal security apparatus (intelligence) and its collaboration with other subsequent security agencies raised concerns about the safety and personal security of individuals in relation to their digital activities, whether in their personal or professional capacities. The OCHR has received several reports from individuals who claim to have been unlawfully summoned for investigations, including instances of receiving calls from unknown numbers or being approached at their workplaces and compelled to accompany officials for questioning. During these interrogations, individuals are surprised to find that all their devices, such as mobile phones, tablets, or personal computers, are seized from them. Additionally, individuals have reported that upon receiving a summons for questioning, they are mandated to bring all their personal devices with them.

In 2020, within a short period of fewer than two months since taking office, the current Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, issued Decree 4/2020, enacting the legislation that governs the Internal Security Service. Article 10 of this law grants the Service full authority to access information about any individual if the Service deems it necessary for security purposes. The significance and degree of this necessity are determined solely by the Service itself. Furthermore, Article 11 of the law confers upon the Service the right to exercise “supervisory and investigative authority” using all available means, without allowing any security or judicial entity to monitor this authority, except by the Sultan’s own order.

To further expand on the surveillance of individuals and their privacy, the Sultan issued Decree 64/2020, establishing the Cyber Defense Center, which, as per Article 1 of its regulations, is headed by the Chief of the Internal Security Service. Despite being presented in its regulations as a national strategy for electronic defense, the Center, in conjunction with the law governing the Internal Security Service, possesses powers that enable it to infiltrate the personal devices of individuals or even institutions, under the pretext of safeguarding the country’s security and its systems. This is stated in Article 6 of the second chapter titled “Objectives and Competencies of the Center.”

Furthermore, the existence of several other laws contributes to reinforcing individuals’ self-censorship regarding their communication with others or their online postings on various social media platforms or the internet in general. Activists, tweeters, and writers have been convicted based on provisions from Oman’s Penal Code, such as Articles 97, 102, 108, and 115, or Article 19 of the Cyber Crimes Law, due to their posts or articles. Many of those who have been summoned or interrogated were questioned about their communications with individuals or entities, based on the monitoring of their devices and the electronic applications present on these devices.

The preceding information makes it evident that digital privacy rights in Oman are being infringed upon, primarily due to existing gaps and legislation that provide legal cover for digital attacks or privacy violations. This enables security agencies to monitor individuals’ activities and impose penalties, including restricting their access to social media platforms or even resorting to arrest and imprisonment if the security agencies perceive their actions as unlawful or harmful to the state’s reputation.

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