Research Project

Human Rights, Big Data and Technology


Advancing human rights in the age of AI and the digital society

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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What is Big Data?

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.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

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.

What is Big Data, AI and human rights?

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.

Our research areas

What does your digital footprint say about you?

Our project explores how your big data might impact your rights. Read our research case study to find out more about our project.

Read more

The main questions we answered were:

  1. What human rights concerns and opportunities are generated by digital technology including those using ‘big data’, AI and algorithmic decision-making?
  2. Can the international human rights framework and institutions respond to deal with the challenges and opportunities presented?
  3. How do we effectively regulate the collection, storage, use, amalgamation, re-purposing and sharing of data by States and non-State actors?
  4. What remedies are needed and how can these be effectively developed and implemented?

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.

We focussed on four research themes:

Rights implications, regulations, and remedies

In this theme we identified and analysed the positive and negative human rights implications of big data, AI, and smart technologies. We then looked at the existing and developing legal responses to these human rights implications to detect legal and policy gaps in the protection of human rights. From these results, we determined whether and to what extent reform is necessary.

We focused on algorithmic accountability and the risks of potential discrimination in this method of decision making, focusing on transparency, monitoring and accountability at every stage of the development process.

Health and human rights

Here, we looked at public-private partnerships in healthcare and how big data and statistical analysis can be used to measure the progression of health rights and improve their practical delivery. Second, we considered how big data, AI and smart technologies help enhance accountability of duty-bearers (those with a responsibility to respect, promote and realise human rights and to abstain from human rights violations) in relation to health rights.

Surveillance and human rights

Digital innovation has driven the development of ever more potent surveillance tools. Potential now exists to digitally identify faces in a crowd, trace someone’s movements through a city and mine ever-increasing quantities of personal data. Attempts are also made to use digital tools to predict where an offence may occur and who may be responsible. Once understood through the lens of privacy concerns, these new surveillance capabilities bring a range of rights-based considerations into play.

We analysed law enforcement and national security uses of such technologies in the UK, US, India, Brazil and Germany. In doing so we not only assessed the extent to which existing human rights protections require rethinking but, through our work on regulation and oversight, advanced meaningful ways in which these principles can be put into practice.

Advancinghuman rights and humanitarian responses

Humanitarian crises worldwide are at the centre of this theme, with us analysing how international organisations use big data to provide both protection and solutions in the short and long-term for those affected by conflict or displacement.

We investigated techniques for identifying, modelling and using contextual information to pick up potential violations of human rights that may have been manifested in social media. Then, looked closely at techniques to advance humanitarian responses through the analysis of visual imagery and text and image-based computer science to monitor human rights concerns and identify and mould relevant information from the existing social media content.

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Professor Lorna McGregor
Telephone: 01206 873879