Science and Human Rights Coalition Explores the Risks and Promise of Big Data

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, of which COSSA is a member, held its biannual meeting on January 15, focusing on the connections between Big Data and Human Rights. The Coalition brings together organizations and individuals who recognized a role for scientists and engineers in human rights.

The meeting’s keynote speaker, Kavita M. Berger from the AAAS Office of International and Security Affairs, gave an overview of the big data landscape and offered some thoughts from the national security perspective. Berger observed that the risks and benefits of using big data to enhance security are rarely assessed together, resulting in a lack of clarity about the tradeoffs. Careful risk assessment should take into account the vulnerability of the system at issue and its potential for intentional misuse for malicious purposes. The impact on human rights should be taken into consideration as well. Berger suggested that big data could be used to assess and monitor potential abuses of human rights through social media, satellite imagery, and other data sources.

During a panel discussion on the implications big data may have for human rights, Emmanuel Letouzé, of the Data-Pop Alliance and MIT’s Media Lab, pointed to some drawbacks to the big data revolution: it primarily impacts developed countries and it is nearly impossible to permanently anonymize data. He suggested that the main promise of big data lies in its potential to bring decision-making back to the people. Samir Goswami, LexisNexis, cautioned that big data is simply a tool; having data will never be able to replace political will. Jeramie D. Scott, Electronic Privacy Information Center, expressed concerns that the big data revolution may erode privacy, chill free expression, restrict movement and association, and even lead to discrimination.

A final session explored the promise of big data in the human rights context. Mark Latonero, University of Southern California’s Data and Society Research Institute, discussed his work using digital and network technology to track human trafficking through online classified ads. He recommended that big data scientists working in sensitive areas like this think through if and how they plan to intervene should the need arise. Megan Price, Human Rights Data Analysis Group, discussed using “found” data—like bureaucratic records, police reports, and border crossing records—to conduct human rights research. Two of the biggest challenges surrounding this area are preserving the data and protecting the victims, witnesses, and recorders of the data. She also pointed out that even big data is likely to have some inaccuracies or selection bias, and recommended researchers think critically about their data sources. Kalev Leetaru of the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) Project described how GDELT uses big data to create global maps that track current events, social media conversations, and even protests and violence.

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