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Human Rights and Information Technology in the Era of Big Data


Edward Snowden’s leaks about the extent of US and UK intelligence services’ electronic surveillance dramatically demonstrated how in an increasingly digitised world, technological developments and the collection, storage and use of ‘big data’ pose unprecedented challenges for the protection of human rights. The aim of this programme of research is to ensure that the use of technological developments and big data are compatible with the ideals of human rights protection and can even have a positive impact.

Snowden’s revelations are part of a much bigger picture in which electronic monitoring and data is collected and shared by companies and states on a routine, daily basis through social media, consumer activity and smartphones. The same technologies that threaten our privacy also provide opportunities for enhanced protection of human rights through better documentation of human rights violations and by demonstrating the effectiveness of rights-shaped policies in order to influence resource allocation and budgets.

Existing work either fails to consider the rights-implications of the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and big data or focuses on a particular right. What is missing is a wider investigation into the diverse and complex rights-implications (positive and negative) of the use of ICT and big data including, but not limited to, privacy and the many social, ethical and legal issues lurking beneath the surface of human-machine interaction and use of big data. Moreover, regulation of the use of ICT and big data is currently fragmented between states, the United Nations and internet governance sector. This project will provide added value by offering a fuller picture of the totality of human rights issues raised by ICT and big data to advance new thinking and regulatory solutions.

The research questions focus on issues that cut across the threats and opportunities:1) How is the use of ICT and big data shaping the content and scope of rights? (2) How does the use of ICT and big data shape operational practices across state and non-state activities? What new theoretical questions and implications for human rights are generated? (3) What methodologies are needed to identify and document the misuse of modern technologies and the failure to comply with rights-based obligations? (4) How can the use of ICT and big data best support evidence-based approaches to human rights protection and advocacy? (5) What possibilities and limitations exist for regulating the collection, storage and use of ICT and big data by states and non-state actors?

More information about the project can be found here.

Project members

  • Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz)
  • United Nations (UN)
  • Getulio Vargas Foundation
  • Federal University of Ceara
  • Human Rights Commission
  • University of Barcelona, Spain
  • Geneva Academy
  • Universal Rights Group
  • Harvard University, United States
  • World Health Organisation, Switzerland
  • Human Rights Data Analytics Group
  • School of Computer Science & Electronic Engineering, University of Essex

Team members


The project is funded through ESRC under grant agreement No. ES/M010236/1.