Is big data a threat to human rights?

26 March 2015

Big data is an extraordinary resource offering unique opportunities, but the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations revealed that it also comes with great risks.

Thanks to a grant of nearly £5 million from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), researchers at the University of Essex will lead the first global project investigating the human rights implications of the collection, storage and use of big data.

Matched by £1m from the University, the project will explore issues including privacy and how big data gathered through social media can be used against us, but also how it can be harnessed to document human rights violations, provide assistance and access to basic rights, and improve lives around the world.

Led by researchers from the University’s world-leading Human Rights Centre, the multi-disciplinary project will make use of the expertise of Essex’s lawyers, social scientists, computer scientists and technology experts.

Principal investigator, Professor Maurice Sunkin, also of Essex’s School of Law, said: “Rapid technological developments, and our engagement with things like social media, enable unprecedented collection and analysis of big data.

"The data can be used to provide comprehensive profiles of our societies, and of identifiable individuals. While offering huge potential benefits this poses significant threats to fundamental human rights.

“Adopting a global perspective, our research will improve understanding and assist the development of law to enable us to benefit from big data, while limiting the potential harm and ensuring human rights are protected.”

Lorna McGregor, Director of Essex’s Human Rights Centre and Co-Director of this ESRC Large Grant, added: “Essex is ideally-placed to ensure this five-year project has significant, targeted impact as we have extensive links with key UN agencies, national human rights institutions, the international human rights community, NGOs, technology companies and the internet governance sector.

“We will bring together key global stakeholders at a series of expert meetings and international conferences, and a visiting fellowship scheme will allow academics from around the world to participate in the project.”

The Essex research team will work with external partners and consultants including the University of Cambridge, Eye Witness Media Group, The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, the German Development Institute, Human Rights Data Analytics Group, Universal Rights Group, Harvard University and the World Health Organisation.

The ESRC award comes in the month Essex celebrated its research excellence and impact in human rights, with a week-long series of activities at its Colchester Campus and in Geneva, as part of the University’s 50th anniversary.

More information
1. For further information and pictures of Professor Maurice Sunkin and Lorna McGregor, please contact the University of Essex Communications Office, telephone: 01206 872400 or email:

2. The University of Essex Human Rights Centre is one of the oldest academic human rights centres in the world and enjoys a global reputation as a leader in the field of human rights research, practice, and education.

It brings together over 80 academic staff from 11 departments who are prominent scholars in human rights and advise and act on behalf of governments, NGOs, national and regional human rights bodies, and international organisations such as the United Nations.

The Centre consistently produces cutting-edge academic and policy research, addressing a wide range of human rights issues that are a priority and of direct relevance to beneficiaries such as victims of human rights violations, governments, NGOs and international organisations.

3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research.

ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

...more news releases