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UN rights report calls for moratorium on remote biometrics in public

UN rights report calls for moratorium on remote biometrics in public

A report published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has suggested that artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, including biometrics, should be developed and deployed with high regard for fundamental human rights. In the meantime, states should place a moratorium on the use of remote biometrics in public spaces, the report says.

The report notes that these technologies such as facial recognition surveillance systems, profiling, automated decision-making and other machine-learning technologies, which are increasingly being deployed by states and organizations, can reflect biases and infringe on the rights of people.

Speaking during a recent hearing in front of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights about the consequences of the Pegasus spyware incident that affected thousands of people in 45 countries, the UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet, reiterated the concern, calling on states to put a halt on the use of such technologies until sufficient human right safeguards are in place.

According to Bachelet, the potential benefit of AI technologies is significant, but urgent actions have to be taken by authorities in order to ensure that issues about their accuracy and discriminatory impacts on society are adequately addressed.

“Artificial intelligence can be a force for good. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights. We cannot afford to continue playing catch-up regarding AI. Action is needed now to put human rights guardrails on the use of AI for the good of us all,” said Bachelet during the hearing.

Real-time remote biometric recognition, which currently usually means facial recognition, is singled-out as particular threatening to human rights.

The OHCHR report launched Wednesday in Geneva underlines the fact that apart from infringements on people’s right to privacy, certain AI technologies also affect their right to education, health, association, movement, peaceful assembly, and even freedom of expression.

The report also details instances of how people have suffered discrimination or ill-treatment as a result of faulty or biased decisions rendered by AI-powered systems, and equally presses on the need for due diligence concerning the impact of such technologies before their adoption and eventual deployment.

Among other issues, the report also criticizes the opaqueness in which biometric data is sometimes collected, stored and shared, and goes ahead to suggest the need for greater transparency by companies and states in the way they develop and deploy AI-based technologies so that their real impact on human rights and society can better be understood.

The use of AI such as facial recognition systems in public places by some countries has come under intense criticism in the past, with fingers pointing to human rights violation concerns.

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