Today, it is all too easy for governments to
permanently watch you and restrict the right to privacy, freedom of assembly,
freedom of movement and press freedom.
and machines are destined to live in an ever-closer relationship. To make it a happy
marriage, we have to better address the ethical and legal implications that
data science carry.
Artificial intelligence, and in particular its subfields of machine learning and deep learning, may
only be neutral in appearance, if at all. Underneath the surface, it can become
The benefits of grounding decisions on mathematical calculations
can be enormous in many sectors of life. However, relying too heavily on AI
inherently involves determining patterns beyond these calculations and can therefore
turn against users, perpetrate injustices and restrict people’s rights. AI
in fact can negatively affect a wide range of our human rights.
AI in fact can negatively affect a wide range of our human
rights. The problem is compounded by the fact that decisions are taken on the
basis of these systems, while there is no transparency, accountability
and safeguards on how they are designed, how they work and
how they may change over time.
on the right to privacy and the right to equality
The tension between advantages of AI technology and
risks for our human rights becomes most evident in the field of privacy. Privacy
is a fundamental human right, essential in order to live in dignity and
security. But in the digital environment, including when we use apps and social
media platforms, large amounts of personal data is collected – with or without
our knowledge – and can be used to profile us, and produce predictions of our
behaviours. We provide data on our health, political ideas and family life
without knowing who is going to use this data, for what purposes and why.
Machines function on the basis of what humans tell
them. If a system is fed with human biases (conscious or unconscious) the
result will inevitably be biased. The lack of diversity and inclusion in the
design of AI systems is therefore a key concern: instead of making our
decisions more objective, they could reinforce discrimination and prejudices by
giving them an appearance of objectivity. There is increasing evidence that
women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTI persons particularly
suffer from discrimination by biased algorithms. There
is increasing evidence that women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities
and LGBTI persons particularly suffer from discrimination by biased algorithms.
Studies have shown, for example, that Google was more
likely to display adverts for highly paid jobs to
male job seekers than female. Last May, a study by the EU Fundamental Rights
Agency also highlighted how AI can amplify discrimination. When data-based
decision making reflects societal prejudices, it reproduces – and even
reinforces – the biases of that society. This problem has often been raised by
academia and NGOs too, who recently adopted the Toronto Declaration, calling
for safeguards to prevent machine learning systems from contributing to
Decisions made without questioning the results of a flawed
algorithm can have serious repercussions for human beings. For example, software
used to inform decisions about healthcare and disability benefits has
wrongfully excluded people who were entitled to them, with dire consequences
for the individuals concerned.
freedom of expression and freedom of assembly
Another right at stake is freedom of expression. A
recent Council of Europe publication on Algorithms and Human Rights noted
for instance that Facebook and YouTube have adopted a filtering mechanism to
detect violent extremist content. However, no information is available about
the process or criteria adopted to establish which videos show “clearly illegal
Although one cannot but salute the initiative to stop
the dissemination of such material, the lack of transparency around the content
moderation raises concerns because it may be used to restrict legitimate free
speech and to encroach on people’s ability to express themselves.
Similar concerns have been
raised with regard to automatic filtering of user-generated content, at the
point of upload, supposedly infringing intellectual property rights, which came
to the forefront with the proposed Directive on Copyright of the EU. In certain circumstances, the use of
automated technologies for the dissemination of content can also have a
significant impact on the right to freedom of expression and of privacy, when
bots, troll armies, targeted spam or ads are used, in addition to algorithms
defining the display of content. Similar concerns
have been raised with regard to … the Proposed Directive on Copyright of the
The tension between technology and human rights also manifests
itself in the field of facial recognition. While this can be a powerful tool
for law enforcement officials for finding suspected terrorists, it can also
turn into a weapon to control people. Today, it is all too easy for governments
to permanently watch you and restrict the right to privacy, freedom of
assembly, freedom of movement and press freedom.
governments and the private sector should do
AI has the potential to help human beings maximise
their time, freedom and happiness. At the same time, it can lead us towards a
dystopian society. Finding the right balance between technological development
and human rights protection is therefore an urgent matter – one on which the
future of the society we want to live in depends.
To get it right, we need stronger co-operation between
state actors – governments, parliaments, the judiciary, law enforcement
agencies – private companies, academia, NGOs, international organisations and
also the public at large. The task is daunting, but not impossible.
A number of standards already exist and should serve
as a starting point. For example, the case-law of the European Court of Human
Rights sets clear boundaries for the respect for private life, liberty and
security. It also underscores states’ obligations to provide an effective
remedy to challenge intrusions into private life and to protect individuals
from unlawful surveillance. In addition, the modernised Council of Europe Convention for
the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal
Data adopted this year addresses the challenges to privacy resulting from
the use of new information and communication technologies.
States should also make sure that the private sector,
which bears the responsibility for AI design, programming and implementation, upholds
human rights standards. The Council of Europe Recommendation on the roles and responsibilities of
internet intermediaries, the
UN guiding principles on business and human rights, and
the report on content regulation by
the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to
freedom of opinion and expression, should all feed the efforts to develop AI
technology which is able to improve our lives. There needs to be more
transparency in the decision-making processes using algorithms, in order to
understand the reasoning behind them, to ensure accountability and to be able to challenge
these decisions in effective ways. A third field of
action should be to increase people’s “AI literacy”.
A third field of action should be to increase people’s
“AI literacy”. States should invest more in public awareness and education
initiatives to develop the competencies of all citizens, and in particular of
the younger generations, to engage positively with AI technologies and better
understand their implications for our lives. Finally, national human rights structures
should be equipped to deal with new types of discriminations stemming from the
use of AI.
Artificial intelligence can greatly enhance our
abilities to live the life we desire. But it can also destroy them. We
therefore have to adopt strict regulations to prevent it from morphing in a
modern Frankenstein’s monster.