Biosurveillance can threaten human rights

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Biosurveillance can threaten human rights

Using smartphones to track and trace during the Covid-19 epidemic creates a smokescreen for wider surveillance measures that may infringe people’s right to privacy.

Human rights activists are concerned that such data can be used to discriminate against migrants, refugees, and on racial grounds.

The “Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” (United Nations, November 2020) is categorical:

“Governments and UN agencies are developing and using emerging digital technologies in ways that are uniquely experimental, dangerous, and discriminatory in the border and immigration enforcement context. By so doing, they are subjecting refugees, migrants, stateless persons and others to human rights violations, and extracting large quantities of data from them on exploitative terms that strip these groups of fundamental human agency and dignity.”

The focus of the report is the prevalence of digital technologies in immigration and border enforcement. Some commentators are referring to the rise of “digital borders” – meaning those whose infrastructure and processes increasingly rely on machine learning, automated algorithmic decision-making systems, predictive analytics and related digital technologies.

The UN Special Rapporteur, Tendayi Achiume, was interviewed by Katy Fallon in “UN warns of impact of smart borders on refugees: ‘Data collection isn’t apolitical’” (The Guardian, 11 November 2020). She said, “One of the key messages of the report is that we have to be paying very close attention to the disparate impact of this technology and not just assuming that because it’s technology, it’s going to be fair or be neutral or objective in some way.”

The article noted that Covid-19 has accelerated “biosurveillance” – tracking people’s movements and health. Citing the “Covi-Pass”, a health passport developed by Mastercard and Gavi, a private-public health alliance, being tried out in several African countries, the UN Report criticised the potential impact of such passports on freedom of movement especially for refugees.

In response, the Special Rapporteur has proposed a structural and intersectional human rights law approach to the design and use of emerging digital technologies. It emphasises the scope of legally prohibited racial discrimination in their design and use; current obligations to prevent and combat racial discrimination; and obligations to provide effective remedies for racial discrimination.

It’s clear that civil society groups need to monitor the ways digital technologies are being applied in humanitarian crises and elsewhere in order to challenge discrimination and injustice.

Photo: Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock