Oct 17

#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.


Oct 17

Citizen-Generated #Data. A Game-Changer for Human Rights?

Louise, October 4.

I will, as promised, dedicate this post to some positive examples of when data has enhanced human rights and global development.

One example, which is commonly mentioned in discussions like these, is big data in relation to the right to health. The right to health is rather broad and, as stated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, includes medical access, equal care, the right to prevention, treatment and control of diseases, and broader development areas such as the right to water and food.

An explicit positive example of how big data enhances the right to health is, as pointed out by Spratt & Baker (2015:13), the so-called remote patient monitoring (RPM). In developing countries, where the lack of access to doctors is often a fact, data can enable RPM as it allows medical staff to monitor and help those in need without actually being close-by. Instead, they can provide adequate health care through smart devices.

In addition, from a development perspective, there are according to Spratt & Baker (2015:22) strong indicators that the collection and analysis of big data from different sources could, in powerful systems, be used to warn people of issues such as natural or humanitarian disasters, famine, outbreaks of diseases, and other issues related to human security.

In my work, which relates a lot closer to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, I have perceived big data usage as more tied to repression than to justice. But when looking closer at the positive examples of how big data can be used, I must admit that I am a bit amazed.

I recently came in contact with the term citizen-generated data – data in the hands of the people. According to the network CIVICUS, this is data that civil society actors collect or produce in order to “monitor, demand or drive change on issues that affect them”. An initiative which has been started by the network is called DataShift, which monitors the sustainable development goals and increases government accountability so that the voices of the people can influence national and global policy in order for the most marginalised people to be heard by the most powerful.

When data ends up in the hands of the people who want to bring about change, I can truly see how also civil and political rights can gain from it. Let us return to the example of the Kenyan organisation Ushahidi, which I mentioned in my last post. To me, this is one of the most impressive examples of how ICT and data can prevent human rights abuses such as election violence and potential mass atrocities. The organisation is one of the most vocal groups in the East African region when it comes to applying ICT in relation to human rights, development and human security. According to the organisation, the goal is to “create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response”.

Using the concept of crowdsourcing for social activism and public accountability, the organisation has created a model that has later been used for mapping not only election violence but also enhance humanitarian response in the crisis such as the Haiti earthquake and tracking malaria, Ebola and other diseases. The model has been coined as Activist Mapping, which is described as a combination of social activism, citizen journalism and geospatial information. What is great with Ushahidi is that it is, as also pointed out by Read, Taithe and Mac Ginty (2016:10), a typical example of when the information sharing is conducted on a horizontal level, meaning that citizens themselves have been able to use ICT and new media to inform and warn each other about urgent and often violent situations.

Citizen-Generated #Data

Photo: rsambrook

HarassMap is another example that is tied to the organisation Ushahidi. It is a volunteer-based initiative which aims to combat sexual harassment in Egypt. By collecting data that make up an online map, the hope is that the information can serve as a point of reference for “occurrences of incidents, positive interventions and available services” such as for example legal assistance.

It is clear that there is not only one but several examples of how data and ICT can be used to enhance or improve the respect for human rights. What I find interesting and relevant in all above-mentioned examples is the large focus on sharing. According to Spratt & Baker (2015:7), this phenomenon, in combination with the emergence of the internet, is one of the several improvements that enable data to be effective and have a real impact on human rights.

To finish off, I would like to return to a key point that I made in my last post. The effectiveness and “goodness” of big data depends to a large extent in whose hands it is placed. In my next post, I will discuss what happens when data slip through the hands of the people and instead ends up in the control of repressive actors.

Until then, do feel free to comment and share your thoughts.


Sep 17

Thinking About Data – But What About Human Rights?

Louise, September 24.

As has been mentioned in previous posts, we are constantly reminded that we live in a world where information and communication technologies (ICT) not only affect our lives but to a large extent shape them. These new media technologies are rapidly advancing both in scope and scale. Some authors, like Unwin (2017:42), suggest that the notable expansion of new technologies such as mobile devices and new social media platforms emerged in an era of optimism about ICT as means to positive change for the poorest and most marginalised people in the world.

Take a social media platform like Facebook for example. On this platform, which remains the largest social network site in the world, more than two billion users have the possibility to every day share small or large fragments of their lives to the public. The information, the so-called actively generated data (Spratt & Baker, 2015:7), that is shared can range from how a one person likes her eggs in the morning to a large-scale mapping of human rights abuses in a repressive country.

human rights

Photo: Caucasus Business Week | 22 Jan 2015

In large volumes, the data that is generated is called big data – large-scale information that can be collected, analysed, distributed and, not least, used by a second party. Fellow authors to this blog have already raised several of the general challenges and opportunities of big data. It is to me inevitable that we all in one way or another enter that discussion as it serves as a base for analysis.

What I would like to add to the discussion is the element of human rights and, in particular, the worrying trend of shrinking of civic space. What are the possibilities and issues in the intersection between big data and human rights? In addition, I would like to spend some time drawing attention to how ICT as such can provide tools that in one way or another ensure that big data is collected and used in a secure way that goes in line with international human rights standards.

Thinking about data and human rights, I have realised that there is a question that should not pass by without further discussion; who is using the data, and for what purpose?

This is a question that I personally come in contact with every day at work. As an employee at a large international human rights organisation, I am constantly introduced to various forms of big data usage. It allows me to see elements of potential on the one hand, as well as how it can be used for pure repression on the other.

human rights

Photo: Human Rights Data Analysis Group

On the bright side, I see examples such as when the Kenyan organisation Ushahidi launched a platform that allowed the citizens of Kenya to map post-election violence in 2008. The technology has since been used in various aspects, such as for example mapping the destruction of the Haiti earthquake in 2010. I have also seen examples of small grassroots organisations in South Sudan coming together to encourage efforts of citizen journalism that have drawn attention widespread human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings in the country in recent years.

But then I have on the other hand seen first hand how large collections of data can be used by repressive regimes in countries such as Vietnam, Russia and Cuba. Here, the information is rather used by authoritarian governments to silence critical voices of independent journalists, human rights lawyers, students and human rights defenders. The trend, that governments are increasingly able to collect and use data, including personal data, may well be one of the greater threats to human rights in our modern and digital time.

The way I see it, big data can, on the one hand, be a tool of justice, but on the other a weapon of repression. And to a large account, this depends on in whose hands it is placed.

This first blog post of mine should be seen as an introduction to what is to come. In my next post, I will highlight some of the examples where data has in one way or another enhanced human right and global development. In my third post, I will revisit the danger of having the data placed in the hands of repressive state and non-state actors. In my fourth and final post, I will try and have a concluding discussion on whose responsibility it is to ensure that the data handled correctly as well as if there might be ICT tools that could be used in that very process.

I am looking forward to the journey. Do feel free to comment as we go along.