Africa: What Human Rights Framework Can Manage Big Data?


Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We live in a digital age where data collection is continuous, relentless and expanding. Whatever we buy, wherever we travel and whomever we befriend on-line is all “byte-sizable” and open for business.

Our personal preferences, priorities and peculiarities reducible to mere binaries and then, under power of chip and code, aggregated and interrogated for commercial, security and political purpose – whether it be for profit, surveillance or strengthening of borders.

As we mark World Human Rights Day it is clear that the world today is facing challenges as grave as those faced when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created over 70 years ago.

Big Data collection can have huge benefits for society; from helping doctors identify at-risk people before they have symptoms, to helping circumvent corruption. Amnesty International has even shown that its algorithms can help predict, identify and expose violence against civilians and humanitarian devastation.

In the global effort to further human rights, big data is both the biggest challenge and greatest opportunity

These benefits have been underscored by COVID-19, where the world has relied on technology to increasingly enable remote access to education and health care. Data also has the potential to shed light on issues that might otherwise go unnoticed.

However, the greatest opportunities and challenges for Big Data are less in its capabilities and more in our answers to fundamental questions: Who gets to control Big Data and how? And whose interests does it ultimately serve? In the context of technological innovation, the big challenge is how to give our common humanity the final say.

With little oversight as to where our data goes, data collection has the potential to threaten the human rights of billions of people across the globe – particularly young people who are potentially most exposed to data collection, yet often not informed enough to claim their data-rights.

Human rights play a key role in this, not as an obtuse legal compendia but as a lodestar for our common humanity. This may sound fanciful, but in the midst of war’s devastation 70 years ago the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out the dignities that are owed to each of us, including non-discrimination and protection from abuse of power.

The trajectory of Big Data must ultimately be shaped by this common humanity. We have resisted other reductions of our physical selves to mere commodities by the cruel trades of slavery, organ harvesting and human trafficking. Today we must also mount resistance to commodifications of our digital selves that strip us of informed consent and privacy; that foster fear, intimidation and hate; that entrench rather than dismantle inequality.

We face the challenge that in the digital domain our current governance systems are inadequate – as is the political will to secure human rights for all. But, those urgent tasks fall to us all lest we too sleepwalk our children into irreversible consequences.

Ultimately our children – adolescents and young people – may be the answer. The youth of today are more digitally savvy and intellectually agile. However, this generation – the largest in human history – is both un-minded and undermined. Their rights to sexual and reproductive health are often dismissed, the right of access to quality education side-lined in public budget and their right to participate in public decision making even ridiculed.