By Kristen Myers and Sulamita Romanchik, MAGG Students

From May 16 to May 18 we had the privilege of attending the Global Summit on Human Rights in the Digital Age – RightsCon 2018. The summit brought together over 2000+ participants from over 115 countries worldwide to engage in conversations on privacy and data protection, innovation policy, artificial intelligence, digital security, and advocacy, among many others. As our interest area lies in the area of artificial intelligence (AI) and governance, most of the panels we attended focused on AI, with a few exceptions.

The conference couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time – we were in the final stages of drafting a policy brief for Global Affairs Canada on governance measures that can be taken to prevent and prepare for AI going awry. It was very encouraging to see that the policy recommendations we came up with were in line with what many members of the international community are discussing. Aside from the evident academic and practical benefits of the conference, it was very valuable to experience the coming together of people from various backgrounds (journalists, government officials, the private sector, civil society, academics, etc.) who were so eager to understand the complications and advantages of emergent technologies and the urgency of upholding human rights in the digital age.

A re-occurring theme in several of the panels looking at AI was the question of privacy and data protection. Since several of the recent governance outputs (such as the EU’s recent adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and China’s emerging data privacy system – the Personal Information Security Specification) addressed these issues, ‘privacy’ and ‘data protection’ became popular buzzwords at RightsCon. Surprisingly, this seemed to inadvertently take away attention from the issues of responsibility, accountability, and regulation.

On a panel organized by Net Rights Africa Coalition, the speakers discussed the challenges of digital rights across the African continent. During the panel it was discouraging to learn that one of the biggest issues on the African continent is that there is next to no data protection. In Kenya, for example, we learned that the biological data of children is being stored in clouds in European countries as parents are forced to register children, thus providing foreign companies with private personal data. What was most disheartening was the fact that this is a necessary precursor to having access to government services and thus the data can be used in the future to predict and determine how individuals will vote and what kind of insurance individuals will be eligible for.

The panel was one of many at the summit that highlighted the problems and challenges presented by the inherent biases of data and its impacts on the rights of different groups, another theme expressed throughout the three days. In an attempt to encourage change, members of the panel sought to unify and promote collective action by Africans: to stand up, educate, and establish a threshold marking an acceptable amount of privacy they are willing to give up in order to have access to services. As expressed by the panel, it was very evident that Africans were extremely unsettled by the fact that African youth are “up in a cloud” as much as physical beings walking on the ground – something that, no doubt, would not be tolerated elsewhere.

At another panel we had the opportunity to hear about the tools, techniques, and sources of material used by the New York Times in its video forensics and investigations into situations of human rights violations around the world. These included how it used raw video footage and audio information to augment and provide a more complete and detailed timeline than that of law enforcement in the Las Vegas shootings earlier this year, and its use of satellite footage to follow the shipment of bombs from Italy to Saudi Arabia which were used in airstrikes killing civilians in Yemen. The panel gave us the opportunity to engage with the global journalism community and to find out about how digital technologies can be used to augment and investigate human rights abuses, including how actors are violating national and international laws and how some are monopolizing on conflicts to build up their own industries at home.

RightsCon gave us the chance to explore both the positive and negative sides of digital technologies, including those of AI. It was enlightening to learn how these technologies can prevent human rights abuses, identify when these abuses have happened (and in some cases have caused the abuses themselves), all while engaging with individuals and experts from around the world on digital issues and their interaction with human rights at a global level. We would like to thank the Digital Inclusion Lab at Global Affairs Canada for giving us the opportunity to take part in this incredible event.