#BigData – Big Threat to Human Rights?

Louise, October 14.

I have recently explored how big data can be an opportunity in the context of human rights. Among other things, I have taken a closer look at the phenomena called citizen-generated data – data in the hands of the people who are fighting to bring about change. But what happens when big data is controlled by governments or large corporations whose purpose is not to promote the respect for human rights but instead to advance their self-interest or power status?

“Those who argue for the benefits of big data often adopt an evangelical tone, while opponents tend to stress the dystopian nature of big data future”

Spratt & Baker (2016:5)

It is no secret that we live in what could be described as a digital age where technology is advancing and becoming more powerful by the day. The possibilities for governments and other actors, such as large companies, to compile big data, including personal data, is growing larger by the day. It has been stressed that these new technologies are important for issues such as national security. But at the same time, the very same technologies increase the possibilities for governments and large corporations to discriminate against certain groups or individuals (Spratt & Baker, 2016:14).

Even in long-term, stable democracies such as Sweden, these advanced technologies can potentially be used to infringe on rights such as the right to privacy, the right to not be discriminated against, and the right to effective remedy. There are numerous examples of how both companies and governments use various technologies relating to big data to interfere with people’s private lives. This has been demonstrated not least in relation to the increased efforts to combat terrorism.

In Sweden, which is generally considered a country where human rights are widely respected, there are several notable examples of when companies or state authorities have collected big data in ways that violate or may violate people’s right to privacy.

For example, in 2014, the website Lexbase was launched. The website provides access to people’s criminal records so that other people in a user-friendly way can find out if their neighbour, colleague or new date are in the system. The service has been deemed legal as it provides official records, but it has been widely criticised for interfering with people’s personal data. What was however not legal was when the Swedish police compiled personal data of close to five thousand Swedish Roma citizens with no criminal record. In April 2017, the Swedish state was subsequently found guilty of ethnic registration.

“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.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12

As stated by Spratt & Baker (2016:14), not all governments use these new technologies that allow for the collection of big data in a negative way, but the potential for them to do so is expanding. For example, authoritarian regimes now have the possibility to monitor opposition members, human rights defenders, independent journalists and other critical voices. Seeing this in relation to other forms of state repression, the challenges for those working to promote and protect human rights could be immense.

Let us take Russia as an example. Since 2015, internet companies are required by law to store personal information – big data – about Russian citizens on servers in Russia. This enables the authoritarian government to mass-surveil its population while at the same time strictly interfering with the citizens’ internet freedoms. This form of control over big data has a severe impact also on other human rights and freedoms such as the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19

A related issue that should thus not be forgotten is the issue of self-censorship as means to adapt to the state-controlled data collection systems. This means that for example opposition members, the independent media, and human rights defenders are forced to try to adjust their behaviour and communication patterns to avoid state repression. This is a phenomenon that not seldom suffocates the political discourse as it crowds out all critical voices.  

Big data human rights

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In the title of this post, I asked myself if big data is a threat to human rights. Having thought about this for quite a while now I would say both yes and no. Big data is not the perpetrator, but it is the weapon. In my next post, I will return to that though when I discuss what more that can be done to ensure that big data is handled correctly.

 

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3 comments

  1. Louise, this is a wonderful and very important point of view. It made me think and reminded me with the fact that movements and big business companies are actually way more powerful than us the ordinary people. No matter of the purpose of the data they collect or the legal umbrella they use. This data is the most powerful tool ever existed and can easily destroy and change lives.
    You gave Russia as example of how they have created legal umbrella to collect data from all services providers. Imagine what other countries are doing with the data they have in developing countries and how they manipulate the public opinion through using the data they have.

    Sometime I wish if technologies did not exist…

    • Diana Uljanova Sigfusson

      Hi, Ali!

      I agree with you in the matter on how the data is being manipulated in developing countries. It is a very thin line between good and bad here. Technology does good in some cases but is also helping “bad guys” in other cases.

    • Hi Ali,

      Thank you for the nice comment. I do agree with your thought about the power of companies. This could be a discussion in itself (which would be interesting), not least since the power could and should be seen in relation to their financial status. I think that is why it is such a difference when it comes to data in the hands of companies/states, and data in the hands of the people. This, of course, relates to your important point about manipulating the public opinion in developing countries.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      Louise