How governments use Big Data to violate human rights

January 14, 2019 by Andrew Thompson, The Conversation
Women in totalitarian states are among those particularly at risk by government’s use of Big Data to spy on its citizens. Credit: Matthew Henry/Unsplash

The right to privacy has become a pressing human rights issue. And rightly so. Big data —combined with artificial intelligence and facial recognition software —has the capacity to intrude on people's lives in unprecedented ways, in some cases on a massive scale.

While much of the discussion has focused on how and use the data they collect about their users, more attention needs to be paid to the wider relationship between violations of and other types of human rights abuses.

The reason is simple. Mass invasions of privacy can undermine the rights of millions, if not billions, of people around the world as governments gain a greater capacity to discriminate —or worse —across gender and sexuality lines, and stifle dissent, including through violence. More about this in a moment.

So what can be done to limit the human rights fallout? What we need is a multi-pronged approach that involves , the private sector, foundations and states.

Establishing human rights funds

First, foundations that support human rights should establish human rights and technology funds. Activists are already harnessing new technologies to monitor and document abuses. Amnesty International is working with a data analysis company to quantify levels of misogyny on Twitter. This type of innovation should be encouraged and resourced.

Second, states should negotiate new norms and laws for the digital age. The Montreal Declaration on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence offers a powerful statement on the need for the ethical development of . Similarly, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy is leading efforts to develop what's been called a "Draft Legal Instrument on Government-led Surveillance and Privacy." These initiatives, and others like them, should be supported.

Third, states must reaffirm the principle of the right to asylum. States that use technology to violate human rights will displace people. Those with a well-founded fear of persecution will need protection.

Finally, states that believe in a rules-based international order must redouble efforts to tackle impunity. Human rights abuses occur because those who commit the violations are rarely held to account. This needs to change.

'Grave consequences'

Failure to check invasions of privacy enabled by technology will have grave consequences. Here are four examples that illustrate this point.

Women's Rights: Surveillance technologies are often used to police morality, especially in places where there is no clear distinction between "sin" and law.

Take Saudi Arabia. In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that Saudi courts are using the "vague provisions" in the anti-cybercrime law to "sanction people suspected of committing sexual relations outside marriage, including adultery, extramarital and homosexual sex."

Women are paying a disproportionately high price for these intrusions.

LGBTQ Rights: According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), 72 countries prohibit same-sex relations. Surveillance technologies give governments the ability to "out" individuals. They know where people sleep at night, and with whom. The potential for lives to be destroyed is very great, indeed.

Torture: The governments that violate privacy to suppress minorities are often the same governments that will not think twice about using torture to maintain control of their citizens. Syria is a case in point.

Extrajudicial Executions: If governments can track their citizens' movements, it is not difficult to have them assassinated. The Jamal Khashoggi killing is a tragic example of this. The New York Times has reported that the Saudis used the Pegasus spying software to eavesdrop on Khashoggi, thus enabling his murder.

Other governments could interpret a lack of any meaningful response as permission to target journalists. This is not a hypothetical concern. According to IFEX, an organization dedicated to protecting free expression, 78 journalists were murdered in 2018, and another 159 were imprisoned.

This is not hyperbole. States of all stripes are collecting data on their citizens, and have been for quite some time. This is not going to end any time soon. Quite the opposite.

If left unchecked, invasions of privacy enabled by could put every other human right at risk, and on a scale that would be truly terrifying.

Explore further: UN: Nations hide rise in private digital snooping

Related Stories

UN moves to strengthen digital privacy (Update)

November 25, 2014

The United Nations on Tuesday adopted a resolution on protecting digital privacy that for the first time urged governments to offer redress to citizens targeted by mass surveillance.

Why technology puts human rights at risk

July 4, 2018

Movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and The Terminator brought rogue robots and computer systems to our cinema screens. But these days, such classic science fiction spectacles don't seem so far removed from ...

Rights groups release anti-surveillance software

November 20, 2014

A coalition of human rights and technology groups including Amnesty International on Thursday launched new software to allow journalists and activists to check if their computers are being spied on.

Should cybersecurity be a human right?

February 14, 2017

Having access to the internet is increasingly considered to be an emerging human right. International organizations and national governments have begun to formally recognize its importance to freedom of speech, expression ...

Recommended for you

What happened before the Big Bang?

March 26, 2019

A team of scientists has proposed a powerful new test for inflation, the theory that the universe dramatically expanded in size in a fleeting fraction of a second right after the Big Bang. Their goal is to give insight into ...

Probiotic bacteria evolve inside mice's GI tracts

March 26, 2019

Probiotics—which are living bacteria taken to promote digestive health—can evolve once inside the body and have the potential to become less effective and sometimes even harmful, according to a new study from Washington ...

Cellular microRNA detection with miRacles

March 26, 2019

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short noncoding regulatory RNAs that can repress gene expression post-transcriptionally and are therefore increasingly used as biomarkers of disease. Detecting miRNAs can be arduous and expensive as ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.