Facebook and Google data harvesting ‘violates human rights’

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Business models of major tech companies like Google and Facebook threaten to violate human rights due to the mass aggregation of personal data, and the insights derived from data analys.

The mass harvesting of data by the 'big five' companies - Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google - is violating people's right to privacy, and restricts freedom of expression, Amnesty International has claimed.

The rise of big data, and big data analytics, has created a "golden age of surveillance" that applies not just to the wider ad-tech industry, but to nation-states, according to its latest report. Law enforcement agencies, moreover, can access detailed information on citizens' activity to a granular degree that would have been unthinkable in the past.

"Google and Facebook dominate our modern lives - amassing unparalleled power over the digital world by harvesting and monetising the personal data of billions of people," said Amnesty International's secretary general Kumi Naidoo.

"Their insidious control of our digital lives undermines the very essence of privacy and is one of the defining human rights challenges of our era.

"To protect our core human values in the digital age - dignity, autonomy, privacy - there needs to be a radical overhaul of the way Big Tech operates, and to move to an internet that has human rights at its core."

Companies like Google and Facebook hold a gargantuan share of the online advertising market, effectively a duopoly, and generate cash by offering highly sophisitcate advertising services based around the data collected from users.

However, the sheer scale of intrusion of these business models into people's private lives through constant surveillance, has limited the space for people to define who they are, the organisation has argued.

The very nature of targeting advertising especially means that tech firms are defining our identities to the outside world, which contradicts the right to self-determination within a clear sphere of privacy.

"The aggregation of so much data, combined with the use of sophisticated data analysis tools, can reveal very intimate and detailed information; in effect, the companies can know virtually everything about an individual," the report said.

"Put simply, surveillance on such a scale represents an unprecedented interference with the right to privacy, that cannot be compatible with the companies' responsibility to respect human rights.

"This goes beyond an intrusion into every aspect of our lives online, and in fact threatens our right to shape and define who we are as autonomous individuals in society."

Social media and tech firms have come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks, especially in the way their targeted advertising services are used by politicians to skew elections by microtargeting voters. The issue, in particular, is the role these platforms play in regulating political messaging that's demonstrably false and intended to spread misinformation.

Both Snapchat and Twitter have imposed restrictions on political ads ahead of next month's UK general election, although Facebook has insisted it will not regulate or monitor political messaging in the same way.

The data processing activity of these companies has also been the subject of a host of data protection investigations under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Facebook, for instance, being investigated over ten different incidents by the Irish data protection watchdog.

Amnesty International has called on governments to be more robust in the way they approach tech regulation. Countries should also pass laws that ensure companies are prevented from making access to their service conditional on 'consent' to data harvesting and data sharing with advertisers.

Tech firms should also refrain from lobbying to relax data protection and privacy laws, where such relaxation increases the scope for human rights abuses. They should also take action to remediate any human rights abuses to which they've contributed through their business operations.

"We fundamentally disagree with Amnesty International’s report," a Facebook spokesperson told IT Pro.

"Facebook enables people all over the world to connect in ways that protect privacy, including in less developed countries through tools like Free Basics.

"Our business model is how groups like Amnesty International - who currently run ads on Facebook - reach supporters, raise money, and advance their mission."

IT Pro also approached Google for its response to Amnesty International's findings.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.