UN human rights chief raises concerns over AI privacy violations

16 Sep 2021

Image: © Andrey Popov/Stock.adobe.com

‘AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights,’ said Michelle Bachelet.

The UN’s human rights chief has called for a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence technology until safeguards are put in place to prevent potential human rights violations.

Michelle Bachelet made the appeal this week following a report released by the UN’s Human Rights Office, which analysed how AI systems affect people’s right to privacy. It looked at how profiling, automated decision-making and other machine-learning technologies could impact privacy and other rights such as the right to health, education and freedom of movement.

“Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights,” Bachelet said.

“Artificial intelligence now reaches into almost every corner of our physical and mental lives and even emotional states,” Bachelet added.

The report found that countries and businesses have often rushed to incorporate AI applications “without due diligence”, and there have been numerous cases of people being treated unjustly because of this tech.

Japanese multinational Fujitsu caused a stir earlier this year when it developed a facial recognition system that can detect how focused someone is in online classes and meetings.

The report was also critical of justice systems that had made wrongful arrests because of facial recognition tools. A 2019 study in the UK found that 81pc of suspects flagged by the facial recognition technology used by London’s Metropolitan Police force were innocent.

Earlier this year, Canada banned Clearview’s AI facial recognition technology after the company violated national privacy laws by collecting facial images of Canadians without their consent.

Bachelet also highlighted concerns over the future use of data once it has been collected and stored, calling it “one of the most urgent human rights questions we face”.

“There also needs to be much greater transparency by companies and states in how they are developing and using AI,” she added.

The UN report echoes previous appeals made by European data protection regulators.

In June, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) urged EU lawmakers to consider banning the use of facial recognition technology in public spaces.

This was after the European Commission unveiled its strategy for regulating artificial intelligence. The EU’s proposed regulations did not include an outright ban on facial recognition, but emphasised the importance of creating ‘trustworthy AI’ and restricting uses of the technology that are identified as high-risk.

Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.