UN expert sounds human rights warning over surveillance technology

The use of high-risk surveillance technologies in the name of counter-terrorism comes at an enormous cost to human rights, according to the UN special rapporteur.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, has told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that states and companies were abusing technology in the name of fighting terrorism.

She warned that technologies such as drones, biometrics, spyware, and artificial intelligence (AI) were being deployed and transferred without due regard to the rule of law, governance, and human rights.

“There must be a pause in the use of intrusive high-risk technologies until adequate safeguards are in place,” she said, adding, “in the absence of regulation, the cost to human rights can only increase with no end in sight.”

Authorities should effectively regulate companies involved in the transfer of surveillance technologies abroad, she said, calling for an end to “the unregulated transfer of high-risk technologies to states engaging in systematic human rights violations.”

Ní Aoláin said that increasingly “mundane” use of surveillance technologies had been further normalized during the pandemic and was threatening fundamental rights such as freedom of movement and expression and peaceful assembly, and the right to privacy.

She noted “widespread” misuse of spyware against civil society, dissidents, and journalists, “domestication” of drones in several countries and the global adoption of biometric data collection as prime examples of technology abuse in the name of counter-terrorism.

In her report to the UN, she also warned of “coercive capacity” of AI technologies and joined the call for a global ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

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