Human Rights, Big Data and Technology

Algorithmic Accountability

Algorithm image
Developing a comprehensive approach for algorithmic accountability to protect human rights.

Modern algorithms are replacing human decision making. Algorithms  conduct sophisticated predictive analytics and execute complex tasks beyond human capability and speed. Their application is used to automate many functions traditionally carried out by humans and has expanded to key areas of decision-making. This includes algorithmic assessments in applications such as sentencing decisions, credit scoring, recruitment, and social security. The use of algorithmic systems to make or support decisions is  becoming increasingly central to many areas of public and private life. This can affect all our human rights, from civil, cultural, economic, political, to social rights.


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Algorithmic accountability

The pace of technological innovation is faster than the formulation, application and enforcement of governance and regulation of algorithms in decision-making. Some commentators have suggested that governance and regulatory mechanisms are anti-innovation and that it is too late or too difficult to manage this area of technological innovation. This exceptionalises new technologies such as algorithmic and artificial intelligence systems. It is not a valid argument for failing to govern the development and use of algorithmic systems. Human rights are universally applicable. New technologies can impact human rights like any other sector and the potential benefits for such systems do not discount the need for ensuring human rights are respected and protected. International human rights law applies to the use of new technologies just as it applies in any other area of life.

The human rights-based approach to algorithmic accountability

States and businesses engaged in any part of the algorithmic life cycle, from the design, development and deployment to the supply of algorithmic systems, should embed a human rights-based approach.

International human rights law provides a means to define and assess harm and provides a deeper and fuller means of analysing the overall effect of the use of algorithms. The specific obligations on States and expectations on businesses to prevent and protect human rights include prescription of the mechanisms and processes required for implementation. The international human rights law framework can map onto the algorithmic life cycle and offers a holistic approach for accountability.

Existing mechanisms for algorithmic accountability such as data protection, impact assessments and compliance checks may have some relevance for protecting human rights and preventing violations. The international human rights law framework complements these frameworks and contributes to a more comprehensive approach for algorithmic accountability, incorporating robust safeguards and assessing the full scope of impact.

Our research

The next steps for our research are to operationalise this framework in practical guidance for states and businesses.

Our research areas