Research Case Study

Big data, big threat?

What does your digital footprint say about you? We’re exploring how your big data might impact your rights.

  • Tagged under

    Global perspectives and challenges
    Technology, data and innovation
    Human Rights

  • Lead Academics

    Professor Lorna McGregor
    Professor Maurice Sunkin

Digital technology and the big data it generates about every aspect of our lives offers unique opportunities, but the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations revealed it also comes with great risks.

How can our big data be stored and accessed and by who? What are the implications for our privacy, security and democracy, and how can big data be used to identify human rights abuses, develop policies and to target humanitarian aid?

These are some of the questions being asked by Essex academics involved in a major study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the University.

Portrait of Eileen Donohoe
"The goal of this project is to make sure the technology has more net benefits for human rights work rather than for repressive governments."
Ambassador Eileen Donahoe Former Director of Global Affairs, Human Rights Watch


Digitising our lives

Every detail of our lives today is held somewhere digitally, giving corporations and states the power to access information about our political affiliations, sexual orientation, shopping and travel habits, even health status. It can be used to make our lives easier and to target human rights responses, but it can also be used to discriminate, stifle protest and undermine our rights.

Launched in 2016, our Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project brings together almost 30 Essex researchers, working with colleagues at the University of Cambridge, exploring how human rights can be secured in this digital age.

They are investigating issues including predictive policing, consent, surveillance and counter-terrorism, the use of algorithms to determine access to healthcare and insurance premiums, and how our social media activity can be used to spot and respond to human rights abuses.

A multi-disciplinary approach

Our multi-disciplinary Human Rights Centre is uniquely placed to direct the study. Lawyers, sociologists, computer scientists, economists, criminologists, human rights practitioners and data experts are just some of the researchers working together on this project.

The Centre’s links to key UN agencies, national and international human rights organisations, NGOs, and technology companies will be crucial to realising significant impact.

Big data and human rights: the bigger picture

Essex’s expertise in the fields of big data and human rights has led to other significant initiatives:

  • In 2017 scientists from our Language and Computation Group, working in partnership with Minority Rights Group International, launched an online tool for civilian-led monitoring of crimes that often go undocumented like torture, killings and sexual violence.
  • Students have joined Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps – a global initiative assessing whether images posted on social media can be used for documenting suspected human rights abuses.
The Human Rights and Big Data Technology project team is multi-disciplinary )
The Human Rights and Big Data Technology project team is multi-disciplinary
Research team
  • Dr Chris Fox, Advancing Human Rights and Humanitarian Responses stream lead, School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, University of Essex
  • Professor Pete Fussey, Surveillance and Human Rights stream lead, Department of Sociology, University of Essex
  • Professor Paul Hunt, Health and Human Rights stream lead, School of Law, University of Essex
  • Professor Lorna McGregor, Co-Director, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex
  • Professor Maurice Sunkin, Co-Director, School of Law, University of Essex

See the full team.