Housed within the Human Rights Centre at Essex with partners worldwide, the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project considered the challenges and opportunities presented by big data and associated technology from a human rights perspective. The project commenced in October 2015 and concluded in March 2022. It was funded by a £5 million grant from the Economic and Social Research Council and £1 million from the University of Essex.
The digital age has brought about a global pattern shift in how we communicate, interact and organise our world. Everyday life generates colossal quantities of digital data. This data can be scrutinised by complex forms of analysis using algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital tools.
This in turn yields highly personalised insights about ourselves, our habits, desires and our role in society. Our project explored the challenges and opportunities that big data and AI are bringing to human rights. We researched whether fundamental human rights concepts and approaches needed to be adapted in the era of technological advancement and big data.
We developed good practice guidelines, regulatory responses and solutions for the human rights sector to improve both enjoyment and protection in the digital age. Our key engagements fell mainly but not entirely into the categories: businesses, international human rights and humanitarian institutions and non-governmental human rights.
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Big data is an evolving term covering a vast area of data that can be collected, analysed and monetised. It is developed, for instance, through search engines, internet history, social media, voice messages, ECG scans, and barcode scans.
AI is developing every day. It is an area of computer science that creates intelligent machines that are programmed to work and act like humans. It involves them solving problems and improving themselves. It is expected that they will eventually be able to mimic and perform the same tasks as a human would.
Big data AI can affect the enjoyment of all fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The use of these technologies can affect a range of sectors and areas of life, such as education, work, social care, health and law enforcement. They can negatively impact groups in positions of vulnerability, such as refugees, asylum-seekers and older persons. The use of big data and AI can also threaten the right to equality, the prohibition of discrimination. Privacy is also at risk; with such giant sets of data available, it means people are having information shared unprecedentedly that they would rather keep private.
However, big data also provides opportunities for the enhancement of human rights protection. For example, in the identification of otherwise invisible forms of vulnerability and discrimination, by facilitating more personalised education and assisting people in later life to live a dignified life at home.
How did we plan to do this? We had an international and multidisciplinary team of professionals specialising in computer science, criminology, economy, law, philosophy, political science and sociology. This is allowed us to research the predominant areas that affect the relationship between human rights, big data and AI.