In legal studies, discussion of new technologies has often focused on the risks to privacy and data protection. Mariana Gkliati outlines how such technologies may be seen not only as Orwellian threats but also as opportunities for human rights research. Some advances have already been made and there remains much to learn from other fields. However, to build on such progress institutions must be prepared to invest in developing technologies, encourage interdisciplinary work and establish a robust ethical research framework.
In a field like legal studies, where so little attention is paid to methodology, or at least to making it explicit, the choice of the International Research Conference of the Association of Human Rights Institutes, hosted in early September by the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, to dedicate its plenary session to ‘Re-inventing Human Rights Research’ is commendable.
There, in an exciting talk, Professor Lorna McGregor, Director of the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex, introduced the use of new technologies and big data in legal research on human rights.
In the context of human rights, new technologies are most commonly discussed with respect to their risks to privacy and data protection. In the field of migration, European databases such as the Schengen Information System and the Visa Information System hold tens of millions of pieces of data on migrants; putting their privacy at risk and casting a shadow of criminal suspicion over border crossers. The revelations of Edward Snowden, disclosing details of global surveillance programmes, and the work of organisations such as WikiLeaks and Statewatch leave no doubt as to the risks of new technologies and big data sets and the need for adequate safeguards for the protection of basic rights.
Keeping in mind these risks, Prof McGregor pointed out that they can also be a valuable tool for human rights research and advocacy. Technology has proven vital in documenting, reporting, and monitoring human rights violations and large-scale atrocities, while the processing of big data allows for mapping trends and patterns. Mining several data sets can be used to look at the effects of policies and hold actors accountable, as has been shown in the field of healthcare. Finally, human rights research can capture the full potential of new technologies, following the example of employment and debt-related research that make use of data-based algorithm decision making.
However, if legal research is to be part of the big data revolution and not be swept away by it, it needs to meet the challenges the latter presents. Such research requires considerable resources with respect to time, financial investment, and expertise. Most importantly, ethical and security concerns (storing, using, and sharing big data; hacking; anonymity; etc.) need to be taken into account. Furthermore, Prof McGregor highlighted the need to be critical of biased data representations, as well as of the accuracy and possible tactical manipulation of data sets. She also emphasized the need to strengthen the existing regulatory frameworks and have a human rights approach to the risks and limitations of using big data.
What has been done and what more can be done?
Indeed, numerous examples have already appeared in human rights research and advocacy. Amnesty International is using geospatial technologies like satellite imagery for human rights monitoring and prevention. The Witness Program trains and supports activists and citizens around the world to use video safely, ethically, and effectively to expose human rights abuses and fight for human rights change.