How is technology affecting our human rights?

Big data poses new challenges — and opportunities — when it comes to human rights

Ruth Hickin Community Specialist, World Economic Forum


Next year it will be 70 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration is a ground-breaking agreement affirming the rights of individual citizens, including the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to education, the right to a free and fair world and many more.

As a technological revolution, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing the way we live, work and interact with one another. It also has the potential to both challenge and uphold human rights. How are today’s three biggest technological trends impacting these rights?

Automation and the right to fair and decent work

The increasing use of AI and automation is disrupting the global jobs market and significantly impacting the right to fair and decent work. Experts estimate that by 2020, 85% of all customer interactions will be handled without a human agent, with support coming in the form of chatbots and self-service technologies. The OECD estimates that AI is currently meeting or exceeding human performance in a significant number of domains.

A subset of AI, Machine Learning (ML), is expanding rapidly, unlocking pathways to increasingly efficient, accurate, and powerful processes ranging from diagnosing cancer to enabling self-driving cars. Data is the key ingredient that makes machine learning possible. Companies like HireVue are uses AI and facial analysis to measure tone and delivery, for example, to make the hiring process more efficient.

However, not all data is created equal, nor is it equally available across geographies and demographics. The biggest sources of risk for data-related discrimination are inadequate data availability and biased or error-ridden data. In hiring practices, for example, algorithms mimic human decision-making, which can be based on bias.

Image: World Economic Forum

The internet and the right to freedom of expression

The internet provides huge opportunity for individuals to exercise the right to freedom of opinion and expression through communication and exchange of ideas. More than 3 billion people now use the internet, a 2.3 billion rise since 2000.

Yet governments around the world shut down the internet more than 50 times in 2016, according to the United Nations — suppressing elections, slowing economies and limiting free speech. So called ‘fake news’ proliferated in the 2016 US election, a phenomenon familiar to countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia where online news has huge reach and influence. Technology companies’ ability to take down extremist content in real time is limited.

The Internet of Things and the right to privacy

The Internet of Things is perforating domains that were previously private. As a result, the distinction between private and public spheres is blurring and the individual’s right to privacy is being threatened. Business Insider projects there will be 34 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020. All of those devices have the ability to interact with and track our personal data, from smart phone location tracking to motion sensors with inbuilt video cameras filming your movements.

Millions of us are giving away our private data without even realising, despite many of us valuing privacy more than ever. This has an impact on children as well as adults. There is a growing industry of ‘smart toys’ equipped with AI and speech recognition that can interact with children, learn and send data back to the manufacturers — potentially violating the privacy rights of the child.

Three ways technology can protect human rights

1. Online learning and the right to education

More than 120 million children and adolescents around the world are out of school. Technology is becoming a major asset in the pathway to ensuring a quality education for all.

Online learning platforms are proliferating globally thanks to the internet. Platforms such as the Khan Academy, which has 10 million unique visitors a month, have been training children and adults since 2006. Africa alone has nearly 700 million mobile phone subscribers, offering opportunities to share educational content. BYJU’s is India’s largest app, with 7 million subscribers using digital animation and videos to share lessons with a focus on maths and science.

EdTech is disrupting education. Companies such as RoboTutor are creating open-source apps that enable children with little or no access to schools to learn basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. Chimple is using gamification and cognitive research to develop open-source software to autonomously help children learn — in groups or alone.

Image: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

2. Big data and human rights

There is a now a vast amount of data available on environmental conditions, migration and conflict situations thanks to social media, crowd-sourced data and tracking devices on vehicles, mobile phones and other sensors. Cloud computing and big data analysis can use this data to analyse key trends and provide early warnings for critical issues before they occur, aiding the prevention and rapid response to humanitarian disasters.

Microsoft is collaborating with the United Nations to develop Rights View, a “dashboard” that will allow UN human rights staff to aggregate large quantities of internal and external data on specific countries and types of rights violations in real time. OCHA has opened a Centre for Humanitarian Data in the Netherlands that is focussed on increasing the use of data in humanitarian work. Before Hurricane Harvey hit the US earlier this year, agencies including NASA and NOAA were using technology to predict when the storm would hit.

3. Protecting human rights in the supply chain

Modern-day slavery still exists in the supply chains of many corporations. An estimated 30 million people are currently in forced labour in supply chains across multiple industries from electronics to fishing. Blockchain is an authentication mechanism that can enable transparency in supply chains from sourcing through to the customer purchase.

Blockchain is already being tested to eliminate abuses in certain supply chains. Everledger uses blockchain to track the provenance of diamonds — in particular whether or not they come from conflict zones. Provenance has tested tracking the origin of fish initiated by the catcher on the boat — in an industry where slavery is rife.

What’s next for technology and human rights?

In September, the World Economic Forum co-hosted a workshop for civil society and technology companies at its Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution together with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Microsoft. The aim was to explore what human rights mean in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, concluded the day with a call to action: business, civil society, policy makers and technology companies have a responsibility to create solutions that keep humans at the core of emerging technologies. The newly created Partnership on AI, in which Microsoft is playing an active role, is an example of such public-private collaboration to advance human rights.


Originally published at www.weforum.org.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.