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UN Experts Underline Negative Impacts of New Digital Tools

Rural Area in India. Photo: Rakesh Raman / RMN News Service

Rural Area in India. Photo: Rakesh Raman / RMN News Service

UN Experts Underline Negative Impacts of New Digital Tools

The experts reiterated their calls for caution about the radical impact of digital technologies in the context of humanitarian crises.

A group of UN experts has called for greater transparency, oversight, and regulation to address the negative impacts of new and emerging digital tools and online spaces on human rights.

“New and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence-based biometric surveillance systems, are increasingly being used in sensitive contexts, without the knowledge or consent of individuals,” the experts said ahead of the RightsCon summit in Costa Rica from 5 to 8 June 2023.

“Urgent and strict regulatory red lines are needed for technologies that claim to perform emotion or gender recognition,” they said.

The experts expressed concern about the proliferation of invasive spyware and a growing array of targeted surveillance technologies used to unlawfully target human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and civil society in all regions.

“We condemn the alarming use of spyware and surveillance technologies in violation of human rights and the broader chilling effect of such unlawful measures on the legitimate work of human rights defenders and on civic space worldwide, often under the guise of national security and counter-terrorism measures,” they said.

The experts stressed the need to ensure that these systems do not further expose people and communities to human rights violations, including through the expansion and abuse of invasive surveillance practices that infringe on the right to privacy, facilitate the commission of gross human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, and discrimination. 

They expressed concern about respect for freedoms of expression, thought, peaceful protest, and for access to essential economic, social and cultural rights, and humanitarian services.

“Specific technologies and applications should be avoided altogether where the regulation of human rights complaints is not possible,” the experts said.

The experts noted that so-called “generative AI” systems can enable the cheap and rapid mass production of synthetic content that spreads disinformation or promotes and amplifies incitement to hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of race, sex, gender and other characteristics. 

The experts also expressed concern that their development is driven by a small group of powerful actors, including businesses and investors, without adequate requirements for conducting human rights due diligence or consultation with affected individuals and communities. Additionally, content moderation is often performed by individuals in situations of labour exploitation.

“Regulation is urgently needed to ensure transparency, alert people when they encounter synthetic media, and inform the public about the training data and models used,” the experts said.

The experts reiterated their calls for caution about the radical impact of digital technologies in the context of humanitarian crises, from large-scale data collection – including the collection of highly sensitive biometric data – to the use of advanced targeted surveillance technologies. “We urge restraint in the use of such measures until the broader human rights implications are fully understood and robust data protection safeguards are in place,” they said.

They underlined the need to ensure technical solutions – including strong end-to-end encryption and unfettered access to virtual private networks – and secure and protect digital communications.

The experts reminded States and businesses of their respective duties and responsibilities, including human rights due diligence requirements when it comes to the development, use, vetting and procuring of digital technologies.

“Both industry and States must be held accountable, including for their economic, social, environmental, and human rights impacts,” they said. “The next generation of technologies must not reproduce or reinforce systems of exclusion, discrimination and patterns of oppression.”

The experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. 

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