OSCE Conference on Risks and Opportunities Posed by Digital Technologies
On July 12 and 13, 2021, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) held the third Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) of the year, titled “Digital Technologies and Human Rights – Opportunities and Challenges.” The virtual conference included representatives from 45 OSCE participating States; a dozen OSCE missions and institutions, including the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; more than 140 academic, national, and non-governmental human rights institutions; and international organizations like the Council of Europe, European Union, and the United Nations.
Digital technologies affect human rights, gender equality, and the rule of law, and in her opening remarks, Swedish Foreign Ministry Director-General for Political Affairs Elinor Hammarskjöld stressed the nexus between digital technologies and Swedish OSCE Chairpersonship-in-Office (CiO) priorities. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how the digital divide disproportionately affects women and girls, she explained, and stressed the threat that widespread use of digital technologies can pose to fundamental freedoms if used indiscriminately by authorities.
Panelists highlighted opportunities for digital technologies to benefit societies and human rights defenders, as well as dangers they can pose to human rights.
Maia Rusakova, associate professor of sociology at St. Petersburg State University, warned that data collection technologies have facilitated online recruitment by human traffickers. However, facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and tracking blockchain financial transactions and social media activity could play a role in combatting the digital threats of human trafficking.
Susie Alegre, an associate at the human rights NGO Doughty Street Chambers, highlighted how cutting-edge data collection can raise awareness of threats to human rights, support investigations, facilitate positive social change, and support human rights defenders. Examples include Data 4 Black Lives, eyeWitness to Atrocities, Forensic Architecture, and Bellingcat.
Elif Kuskonmaz, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, cautioned that misuse of facial recognition technology could pose threats to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech, and that it could be exploited to wrongfully detain citizens. To prevent such abuse, she recommended that participating States adopt adequate legal frameworks concerning the collection, use, storage, and sharing of personal data. She urged all participating States to review the Council of Europe’s Convention 108+, which addresses personal data collection in a national security context.
Other panelists explored the capacity of artificial intelligence systems to reinforce existing structural inequalities through algorithms and the subsequent human rights implications.
Civil Society Concerns about Government Use—or Abuse—of Digital Technology
Civil society participants shared human rights concerns related to governmental use of digital technologies. Many urged the OSCE to call out repressive behavior and help participating States establish adequate legal protections against misuse. Several urged the United States and the European Union to target sanctions against the worst offenders.
Many participants also took the opportunity to raise human rights concerns directly with government officials, and alleged misuse of data collected by government agencies to persecute human rights defenders, social activists, and their families.
For example, civil society activists from Kazakhstan accused the government of conducting digital surveillance and censorship on NGOs and activists, and they complained that mandatory “security certificates” allow the government to monitor and block use of non-government-controlled social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.
Other NGOs raised concerns about Spain’s treatment of protesters in Catalonia, Greece’s treatment of Turks in Western Thrace, and Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, including Crimea. A German NGO called for the abolition of facial recognition technology due to its use by law enforcement to profile specific ethnic groups and minorities, including Roma and Sinti.
Civil society participants also expressed concerns over participating States’ use of digital technology to target dissent by deploying spyware against individuals, spreading misleading government-sponsored content, and silencing protest groups and democratic movements. Several NGOs argued that their governments exploited conditions imposed by the pandemic to use surveillance camera footage, geolocation data, and contact tracing as part of a domestic surveillance campaign to discourage public political dissent.
Participants highlighted how technology has been used to spread racist messaging, including the racist abuse of English football players following the recent Union of European Football Associations Euro 2020 matches. Many voiced their dismay that social media companies do not hold accountable individuals who spread racist content. Participants recommended that social media companies implement more robust algorithms to detect racist remarks.
Participating States Respond
Several participating States addressed the use of technology. The European Union recognized the importance of addressing human rights abuses that arise from the misuse of digital technologies. Turkey responded by touting its 2016 law on data protection and emphasizing its multiculturalism. The Holy See responded that it is necessary to improve education in proper use and effects of technology. The Holy See also called for international regulations to guarantee the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to private personal electronic communication.