Technology and human rights in 2017

Below is a transcript of my talk at Liberty’s 2017 Annual General Meeting:

We have the extraordinary challenge, and the privilege, of being at a unique and vital axis in time – the precipice of a seismic technological revolution. As the world rapidly changes, our struggle to uphold, entrench, and extend human rights at the core of it is a struggle that’s outcome will certainly outlive us.

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We often pair technology and surveillance, because new ‘smart’ and internet connected technologies are used for surveillance, tracking, and data collection. If the industrial revolution was fueled by oil, the technological revolution is being fueled by data – a valuable commodity that is being mined and exploited at almost any cost. Protecting privacy is the environmental challenge of the information age. It is fundamental to the sustainability of a healthy democratic society.

As technological innovation grows, so too do the opportunities to embed surveillance in all aspects of everyday life.

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Surveillance has taken root from the phones in our pockets, and is increasingly creeping into the home.

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Voice activated personal assistants are on trend – but who is listening; where does your data go? Whilst the ‘My Friend Cayla’ doll was banned in Germany for being an espionage device, there are billboards for Amazon’s Echo all over London, and ‘Alexa’ recently gave evidence in a US murder case.

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Is a social norm being established whereby devices constantly monitor and record our lives? As the traditional relationship between surveillance and suspicion is subverted, and increasingly surveillance now comes first, are our personal trackers not only used by authorities for prosecutions, but accessories we use to demonstrate our innocence – our eligibility in modern society?

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The sharp increase in ‘digital strip searches’ at US borders is alarming. Opening up our phones to authorities is potentially just as, if not more, intrusive than a property raid – yielding extensive logs of private conversations, location history, browsing history, app data from Tinder to banking and health data, all of our emails, and photo albums.

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But what if ‘digital strip searches’ are happening more frequently than we know? With such enabling legislation as the Investigatory Powers Act, the legal power and technological ability certainly exists.

As technologies advance, and our personal devices handle greater storage and more comprehensive data, human rights defenders must prepare for an uncomfortable future. If governments truly believed that the current approach to technology and policing is the right approach, this would be the start of a truly dystopian teleology.

Following an appalling terrorist attack in the heart of Westminster, the Government began its attack on WhatsApp – draconian and misguided in equal measure. To attack WhatsApp and end-to-end encryption is to attack the ability to have a private conversation in the modern world – nothing more and nothing less.

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Is the idea of having a private conversation, beyond the eyes of Government, increasingly imbued with a sense of danger and subversiveness?

The CIA leaks, published by WikiLeaks this March, revealing that US and UK agencies have been collaborating on hacking smart TVs, and car software, were incomparably Orwellian – but barely surprising.

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So if this is the Government’s starting point for liberties in the digital age, what does the end point look like? What precedents are our governments setting for the liberties of future generations?

There is a troubling theme emerging, in which constant surveillance is used to prove not only guilt, but one’s own continued innocence – after all, as the totalitarian motto goes, if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear.

Government has cultivated public support for the notion that citizens are passively monitored – our emails, calls, texts, video calls are automatically investigated ‘to keep us safe’ from each other.

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Now, we are witnessing the inevitable trickle down of mass surveillance and data sharing practices from the national security context and law enforcement to tax enforcement and administration.

HMRC has been making the most of multiple data sources for tax enforcement purposes for some time. HMRC’s Connect system is an example of big data analytics in the public sector, bringing together over a billion items of data from 30 sources, including matching an analysis of 800 million monthly credit and debit card payments with self-assessment tax returns, PAYE, interest on bank accounts, benefits and tax credit data, the Land Registry, the DVLA, online marketplaces and social media.

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And big data sharing is rapidly growing. The Digital Economy Act, which passed last month, in effect creates digital identity cards for all. It permits personal data to be shared and integrated across Government departments, NHS bodies, and county councils without public transparency. It gives anyone with access a complete picture of citizens’ engagement with the State, public services, and utilities suppliers.

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In effect, personal data can be shared across government departments to investigate, penalise or otherwise intrude on the lives of those in receipt of welfare, pensioners, and some of the country’s most vulnerable people.

Big data proves not only our innocence, but our eligibility, in modern society.

Many of the purposes for which data can be shared between government departments do not relate to security or policing, but are supposedly for individuals’ benefit – to make us fit in, and contribute, successfully to society.

Data can be shared between government departments for extremely broad aims to:

  • improve public services through better use of data[1],
  • “safeguard vulnerable adults and children”
  • or to improve individuals’ “physical and mental health”,
  • emotional well-being”,
  • the contribution made by them to society”,
  • and “their social and economic well-being”.[2]

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 21.57.57The Government gave an example of where it would use this benevolent data sharing – to “identify families in need of help” from the Troubled Families Programme which seeks to “put adults in employment (…) and cut youth crime and anti-social behaviour”.[3] However, processing bulk data to ‘identify’ and intervene in the lives of ‘troubled families’ arguably amounts to profiling, and may also have a discriminatory effect.

But if ‘big brother’ were caring, should we accept his patriarchal watch over society?

There is no doubt that some ‘big data’ uses benefit society – for example in public transport systems, and environmental health – but that big data is not personal data. Some people argue that more accurate, representative personal data in big datasets would benefit society – particularly for minority and vulnerable groups, as public policy decisions, will increasingly be made by algorithms fed by big datasets.

Is passive surveillance now essential to demonstrate not only our innocence; not only our eligibility in modern society; but our existence?

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If British democracy is in a state where visibility through surveillance is essential for equality, there is a deeper problem. We cannot have a surveillance-dependent democracy. That is a technocracy. Without privacy, there is no British democracy.

And there are real risks to minority groups being quantified and categorized in large government-held datasets. The modern privacy movement was born out of a post-World War II society, where lessons about technology and human rights were learned in the worst possible way. The 1939 census in Germany included a ‘race’ category, and citizens’ responses were sorted by an early computer – the Hollerith – made by a company that later became known as IBM. This data informed the Nazi’s ‘Jewish Registry’.

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Today, we are faced with the prospect of a ‘Muslim Registry’, pioneered by President Trump. Prior to his election, Trump told NBC News  that “we should have a lot of systems” to track American Muslims: “there should be a lot of systems, beyond database” to track American Muslims, “and today you can do it”. When asked by Yahoo News whether he would support requiring Muslims to carry a special ID card, he didn’t rule it out, noting “we’re going to have to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

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“Today you can do it,” Trump said. And he is right – today, Governments can very easily profile their citizens. Muslims wouldn’t even be required to submit census data, or register in the Government’s database, to be included on a Muslim Registry. Government already has masses of data, including detailed data, about its citizens, and can easily buy more from the private data brokers that deal in hundreds of millions of citizen records.

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Authoritarian tools are often tested first in low-rights environments. I regularly talk to people with disabilities, people in receipt of welfare, and migrants who are terrified about losing their privacy; who increasingly feel investigated. The NHS is handing over thousands of patient records to the Home Office, leading to thousands of people – around 6,000 last year – being traced by immigration enforcement.

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This month, schools and colleges in England are again asking parents if their children are foreign nationals, and where they were born. Last year, the Home Office asked the Department for Education for information on almost 2500 children for immigration purposes – essentially producing a foreign children list.

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These are children who are growing up in a counter-terror environment, where nursery workers, teachers and lecturers monitor their speech, behaviour, internet use – and potentially every keystroke – for accordance with British values.

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Liberty is challenging the NHS’ data sharing with the Home Office; calling for a boycott of the school census; and calling for a repeal of ‘Prevent’.

Our concerns are growing beyond just the mammoth scale of data collection and sharing – the emerging technologies applied to big data and the way it personal data is being used gives rise to a wave of unique concerns. Artificial intelligence companies are using millions of NHS patient records without consent.

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Data is being used to feed predictive policing tools in Kent, and artificial intelligence tools advising on custody decisions in Durham.

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Real time facial recognition is being used at football games.

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Facebook is using artificial intelligence to make mental health assessments of its users.

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Our attitude to privacy has never been more important. It is a fundamental right, on which so many other rights rely.

It has been an extraordinary twelve months since we last discussed these issues at our 2016 AGM.

In November 2016, the Government achieved the most authoritarian surveillance system of any democracy in history, with the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act. The Government actually extended state spying powers beyond those exposed by Edward Snowden – setting a “world-leading” precedent for other states to similarly acquire totalitarian-style surveillance powers. Whilst Liberty and its members fought tooth and nail, and over 200,000 people signed a petition against the Act, the political opposition was devastatingly poor.

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The British state was awarded the ability to indiscriminately hack, intercept, record, and monitor the communications and internet use of the entire population.

But our fight is not over yet.


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In January 2017, we launched a campaign to take the Government to court. The collective action from Liberty members and supporters was truly overwhelming. Within three weeks, over 1800 people chipped in to raise £50,000, enabling us to launch together a crowdfunded legal challenge to the Act, that we call the People vs The Snoopers Charter.  

In fact, our fight has only just begun.

To find out more about the campaign and get involved, go here.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Technology and human rights in 2017

  1. This is thought-provoking stuff, Silkie! Do I recall hearing you speak on TV about the NH Carnival face-recognition “experiment”?
    I’m thinking of writing a book on digitalisation and the law (involving e-disclosure in commercial cases, in particular), but I’d be keen to expand the scope, if you’d be interested in contributing, please.
    Drop me a line (if there’s any interest) and we can have a chat!: andrew.burr@arbdb.com

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