The potential of big data and new technologies in human rights research

The potential of big data and new technologies in human rights research

In the context of human rights, big data and new technologies are usually discussed as Orwellian threats. What if they could also be an opportunity for research and education?

In a field like legal studies, where so little attention is paid to methodology or at least to making it explicit, the choice of the International Research Conference of the Association of Human Rights Institutes (AHRI), hosted in early September by the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM), to dedicate its plenary session to ‘Re-inventing Human Rights Research’ is commendable.

There, in an exciting talk, Prof. Lorna McGregor, Director of the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex, introduced the use of new technologies and big data in legal research on human rights.

In the context of human rights, new technologies are most commonly discussed specifically with respect to their risks to privacy and data protection. In the field of migration, European databases such as the Schengen Information System (SIS) and the Visa Information System (VIS) hold tens of millions of pieces of migrants’ data, putting their privacy at risk and casting a shadow of criminal suspicion over border crossers. The revelations of Edward Snowden disclosing global surveillance programmes and the work of organisations such as WikiLeaks and Statewatch leave no doubt as to the risks of new technologies and big datasets and the need for adequate safeguards for the protection of basic rights.

Insights from Lorna McGregor’s talk

Keeping in mind these risks, Prof. McGregor pointed out that they can also be a valuable tool for human rights research and advocacy. Technology has proven vital in documenting, reporting and monitoring human rights violations and large scale atrocities, while the processing of big data allows for the mapping of trends and patterns.

In the field of accountability, data mining in several datasets can be used in order to look at the effects of policies and hold actors accountable, as has been done in the field of healthcare.

Finally, human rights research can capture the full potential of new technology, following the example of employment and debt-related research that make use of data-based algorithm decision making.

However, if legal research is to be part of the big-data revolution and not be swept away by it, it needs to meet the challenges presented by the latter. Such research requires considerable resources with respect to time, financial investment and expertise. Most importantly, ethical and security concerns (storing, using and sharing big-data, hacking, anonymity, etc.) need to be taken into account. Furthermore, Prof. McGregor addressed in her talk the need to be critical of biased data representations, as well as of the accuracy and the possible tactical manipulation of datasets. She also emphasised the need to strengthen the existing regulatory frameworks and have a human rights approach to the risks and limitations of using big data.

What has been done – What can be done

Indeed numerous examples have already appeared in human rights research and advocacy. Amnesty International is using geospatial technologies like satellite imagery for monitoring human rights abuse and prevention. The Witness Program trains and supports activists and citizens around the world to use video safely, ethically, and effectively to expose human rights abuse and fight for human rights change. Freely accessible interactive maps present the latest information on the Syrian civil war and the war against ISIS. At an academic level, initiatives such as ‘Human Rights Texts: Converting Human Rights Primary Source Documents into Data’ promise new threads of knowledge. Berkley Law Faculty of the University of California runs a Human Rights and Technology Program dealing with, amongst others matters, data accountability issues, forensic methodologies and new investigative techniques for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

Furthermore, new tools that can encourage such research have become freely and easily available. For instance, Kumu helps in the handling and visualisation of data, whilst YouTube’s face blurring tool provides visual anonymity allowing the use of evidence of human rights abuses in public presentations and research work.

Nevertheless, young human rights researchers need to be encouraged to become part of this new environment, become more explicit in their methodology, and experiment with new technologies and ‘tried and tested’ methods from different fields.

For this to become possible law schools and research institutions need to cultivate breakthrough leadership to support interdisciplinary research; not for the sake of interdisciplinary research, but to proactively bring useful disciplines together. The introduction of social, health, and natural science methodologies and the use of new technologies in pre-graduate and post-graduate programmes can be a first step in this direction. Furthermore, more conferences and seminars should follow the example of the AHRI conference and discuss big-data initiatives and technology-inspired research.

Delving into such research also requires new allocations of resources by institutions, including technological capacity and direct technical support. The employment of statisticians and computer scientists at law schools to support research is fundamental if a serious effort is to be made. Due care and attention is also required with respect to the scientific literacy of the researchers themselves, for instance with respect to data mining or predictive modeling and simulation techniques.

Finally, any such effort needs to be complemented with a parallel investigation of, and education about, the impact of digital technologies on human rights and the rule of law, including privacy, data protection and cyber-security. The complexities, limitations and risks of such research need to be addressed through binding and enforceable ethical research principles and practices.

This new approach seems foreign to the seemingly detached and alienated world of traditional black-letter legal research, but the first encouraging steps have already been made. The rest will follow.


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