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UN cautions against biometrics in counterterrorism campaigns

UN cautions against biometrics in counterterrorism campaigns

A United Nations special rapporteur has voiced grave apprehension about a sharp rise in the use of biometrics, artificial intelligence (AI) and spyware to fight global terrorism.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a UN human rights advisor on countering terrorism, presented a report to the body’s Human Rights Council acknowledging that biometric systems have positive effects but that they are also being used to violate human rights.

Ní Aoláin (pronounced nee AYlen) is advocating a moratorium on certain biometric technologies, including lethal autonomous weapons.

In the report, she highlights how counterterrorism and security concerns are often used to justify using biometric identification and surveillance tools.

Ní Aoláin expresses concern over deploying and transferring the tools especially because of their ability to erode rights of privacy, expression, association and political participation. She points specifically to how several countries use of spyware against journalists and civil society actors.

Further, Ní Aoláin is concerned about bias built into algorithms and the global wholesale collection of biometric data.

She says biometric tools have become indispensable to some law enforcement and administrative agencies. The algorithms are being given civil context through identification, criminal justice and border management roles.

According to the report, the Covid pandemic has had a similar role, making the collection of biometric data seem routine.

“While biometric tools have been used successfully for legitimate public interest purposes, they have also been employed in connection with gross human rights violations, atrocity crimes and oppressive and authoritarian regimes,” writes Ní Aoláin in the report.

Ní Aoláin also brought up China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which has been at the forefront of this trend. Reports indicate that authorities have collected mass biometric data from citizens.

Biometric data use in Somalia and by Israel in the occupied Palestinian Territory has raised similar questions for the special rapporteur.

The UK Mission to the WTO, UN and Other International Organisations welcomed the recommendations, saying in a statement, “To be truly effective, our counter-terrorism and violent extremism efforts must respect human rights. The use of biometric information helps us combat terrorism, but it must be used in compliance with human rights law.”

UK Mission officials went on to say the UK is ready to engage with member states, building its capacity to fight terrorism while protecting and promoting human rights worldwide.

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