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UN Human Rights Office warns biometrics and digital ID among surveillance tools raising risk

UN Human Rights Office warns biometrics and digital ID among surveillance tools raising risk

Growing surveillance in public spaces is possible to an extent beyond all previously possibilities due to digital identity systems and biometric databases, along with the proliferation of large-scale data collection and analysis systems, according to a new report.

The report is published by the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). If focusses largely on government use of surveillance tools like ‘Pegasus’ smartphone-tracking software, and the undermining of encryption, and therefore the protections it affords for privacy and human rights.

State monitoring of people in online and offline public spaces with digital tools is where the concerns about digitized identity and biometrics are raised.

That section describes the growth of surveillance cameras to over a billion deployed around the world in 2021. At the same time, the proportion with facial recognition and other video analytics capabilities had grown from less than 2 percent in 2010 to more than 40 percent by 2016. Surveillance drones introduce another surveillance capability which has also been normalized in some places.

‘Smart city’ projects also introduce risk, according to the report, as even anonymized data can often be de-anonymized.

“These developments often occur against a background of new identity systems and expanded biometric databases,” the report states. “Across a range of countries, identity systems are linked to extensive central storage of personal data, including biometric information such as fingerprints, facial geometry, iris scans and DNA. Moreover, databases are often interlinked and made available for searching by other agencies. As a consequence, identifying individuals wherever they are located has become easier and easier.”

The analysis of social media posts gives governments another way to collect biometrics and other data from people, including potentially sensitive data like political beliefs. This data can then be used to monitor dissent and protests.

The potential for governments to curtail human rights with these tools has increased dramatically as their efficiency has improved and their use increased, the report says. Aggregating data from across various platforms is also easier with biometric and digital identity data to draw on.

Laws and regulations are typically well behind these technological advances, the report points out.

OHCHR concludes by recommending that states employ privacy-affecting techniques, including hacking, only in compliance with human rights law, and systematically conduct human rights due diligence. Assessments should consider the possibilities of abuse, function creep, and repurposing.

Data privacy legislation should be updated and transparency increased.  In the meantime, broad public debate should be encouraged, and moratoriums placed on the sale and use of surveillance technologies for hacking and biometric public surveillance. Finally, remediation steps should be available to any victims of human rights abuses from surveillance systems.

The report echoes one in which OHCHR called for a moratorium on remote biometrics like facial recognition in public spaces a year ago.

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