Human rights centered technology in emergency responses

1 Dec 2022 06:30h - 07:30h

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The discussion showed that a significant part of government emergency responses involve a rapid and unprecedented scaled up use of technology. This has been a major trend in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which enabled widespread digital contact tracing and surveillance. However, three years after the start of the pandemic, it is time to take stock, assess the legality, necessity, and proportionality of the surveillance measures and technology introduced to fight the pandemic, and to determine the lessons that have been learned so that governments and civil society, and the entire world, are better prepared for the next global emergency.

The European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), the Mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in counterterrorism, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) and Privacy International have tracked the negative effects of using surveillance technology during the Covid-19 pandemic on individuals and groups and have gathered the findings in a report, which will be published in December 2022. 

The research on these surveillance measures identified the following five globally observed trends regarding the harm of COVID-19 surveillance measures on civil society.

    1. Repurposing of existing security measures: Some governments have taken advantage of the existing frameworks and resources that had originally been introduced as counter-terrorism measures.
    2. Silencing civil society: Some emergency laws and surveillance had consequences for the freedom of speech and the right of assembly to protest intrusive measures. 
    3. Risk of abuse of personal data: Many courts ruled that the proposed data collection of contact tracing apps is unlawful and do not provide necessary data protection
    4. Influential role of private companies: Private companies played a significant role in the pandemic by either cooperating with governments to develop apps and tools or by engaging in data-sharing arrangements. These agreements were rarely made public and had little transparency. In some cases, technical companies required government contracting apps to be compatible with their own company technology for the app to appear in the app store. 
    5. Normalisation of surveillance beyond the pandemic: Experts suggest that the pandemic has provided an entry point for invasive government surveillance to become normalised, even after the threat of the virus has receded.

To prepare for future health crises or other emergencies that will require the use of new technology, three actors should adhere to the following recommendations: 

State Actors:

  • Review surveillance measures and adopt laws considering human right standards
  • Ban indiscriminate biometric surveillance
  • Any data that was collected that is no longer necessary or apps implemented, but no longer used or necessary, should be erased or discontinued
  • Ensure meaningful public participation when designing intrusive technologies
  • Ensure that surveillance measures of emergency responses do not result in repurposing of people’s information or use in commercial projects.

Private Sector:

  • Review technologies and assess their human rights compliance in line with UN BHR principles
  • Adopt human rights policies, including procedures for assessing government access to data
  • Ensure data protection and inform people about data processing activities
  • Publish transparency reports about sharing data with state actors and public-private-partnerships
  • Ensure access to remedies when company actions have caused or contributed to adverse consequences.

Civil Society:

  • Act as watchdog: monitor and investigate surveillance technologies and measures
  • Pursue communications and legal avenues to challenge measures that violate human rights in relation to these emergency responses
  • Urge governments not to repurpose surveillance measures


The session in keywords

WS416 WORDCLOUD Human Rights Centered Technology in Emergency Responses IGF2022