Human Rights, Big Data and Technology

Intelligence Oversight

Private security officer holding phone whilst looking at CCTV screens

Investigating how intelligence oversight techniques are being used and their utility in protecting human rights

Bulk surveillance may be used to protect rights. But population level monitoring may also give rise to significant human rights concerns.

The digital age has sparked a fundamental transformation in state surveillance. This includes how surveillance is conducted and the type of insights it is intended to facilitate. This transformation is exemplified by the use of bulk communications data techniques. It involves the large-scale collection, retention, and subsequent analysis of communications data. These techniques have now become an integral feature of state surveillance.


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Intelligence oversight and human rights

The UK Intelligence and Security Services report that the use of bulk communications data is ‘essential’, and a key tool in fulfilling their obligation to protect human rights. Others have highlighted the potential for serious human rights concerns, particularly with respect to rights such as the right to privacy, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of assembly and association, and the prohibition of discrimination.

Improved intelligence capabilities can unquestionably facilitate the fulfilment of state obligations regarding the protection of life and public order. However, interference with these rights has the potential to undermine both individual rights and the effective functioning of participatory democracy.

Our Research

We are actively working on issues associated with modern surveillance in order to understand:

  • how these techniques are being used and their utility in protecting human rights
  • the potential human rights impact of large scale surveillance, both in terms of individual rights and the effective functioning of participatory democracy

Much of this research is underway and cannot be discussed until complete. However, one completed programme of work involves a collaboration with the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO)  and the Hebrew University.

Following Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations the UK government legislated to put government surveillance activities on a legal footing (Investigatory Powers Act 2016). As part of this, a new intelligence oversight body – the IPCO – was established. The IPCO oversees these activities and observance with the law. IPCO has authority in overseeing the work of more than 600 public agencies in the UK but is primarily focused with the activities of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 as well as national policing bodies.

HRBDT researchers established a relationship with IPCO during their inception. During 2018 we partnered with Hebrew University to co-convene four workshops focusing on specific problems concerning surveillance oversight in the digital age. Research was communicated through event presentations, pre-workshop briefing papers and directed discussion. Events focused on issues defined by IPCO as relevant to their work, primarily, proportionality in the digital age, judicial review, legitimacy and civil society engagement, human rights standards and internal compliance mechanisms within intelligence agencies. Additional participants in the workshops included members of the UN Human Rights Committee (including the current Chair), intelligence agencies, head of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal Sir Michael Burton, IPCO deputy director Sir Michael Goldring, Liberty, Amnesty International, other key civil society and academic representative and intelligence oversight bodies from across the EU.

Research is active in this area, with a number of papers in production, and active collaborations ongoing.

Our research areas