• March 15, 2023

Counter-terrorism ‘rhetoric’ used to justify rise of surveillance technology: human rights expert

In a report to the latest session of the Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, warned of an alarming increase in the use of “intrusive and high-risk technologies”, according to a press release issued by the UN human rights office (OHCHR).

This includes drones, biometrics, artificial intelligence (AI) and spyware, which is being ramped up in the ongoing fight against terrorism, without due regard for the rule of law, governance and human rights, she said.

Exception becoming the norm

“Exceptional justifications for the use of surveillance technologies in human rights ‘lite’ counter-terrorism often turn into mundane regular use,” said Ms. Ní Aoláin, pointing to the impact on fundamental rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to privacy.

There must be a pause in the use of intrusive high-risk technologies until adequate safeguards are in place,” she said.

The Human Rights Council-appointed independent expert expressed concern about the growing domestication of the use of drones in several countries, the widespread misuse of spyware technology against civil society groups, dissidents and journalists, and the increasing adoption of biometric data collection.

‘Unregulated transfers’ must end

“The unregulated transfer of high-risk technologies to States engaging in systematic human rights violations must end,” the Special Rapporteur said. She urged authorities to more effectively regulate companies involved in the transfer of surveillance technologies abroad.

Fionnuala Ni Aolain, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Fionnuala Ni Aolain, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

“In the absence of regulation, the cost to human rights can only increase with no end in sight,” Ms. Ní Aoláin said.

Global ban on ‘killer robots’

She joined the call for a global ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems and highlighted the specific obligations of the various UN counter-terrorism bodies to ensure that any guidance and advice provided on new technologies is fully consistent with the UN Charter, and international law.

Instead, she presented to the Council in her new report a new and innovative approach to regulating spyware, which would focus on ensuring that “minimum human rights standards” are applied, by both governments and companies, in the development, use and transfer of high-risk surveillance technologies.

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