One of the defining issues of our age has been the extraordinary progress that has been made in digital technology. It has revolutionised communications and problem solving, but at the same time has presented us with formidable ethical and moral questions, many of them intersecting with human rights and psychology. In particular the development of big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning pose real threats to human rights if they are misused (see Stuart Russell, author of Human Compatible for development of these ideas).

Psychology was one of the collection of disciplines behind this revolution, with pioneers in cognitive science and computing ( see Information Processing Psychology presentation ). Work in Cambridge University on the application of psychological assessment in online platforms has been at the forefront of scientific research in this area. Their research is part of a wide field that includes those who applied it in ethically questionable ways for political campaigning (Editorial, 2018)

In his book, Permanent Record (Snowden, 2019) Edward Snowden describes how he came to the conclusion that the only way to do something significant about the way mass surveillance was being used by his government was to work with journalists to show the public what was being done in their name, and he was awarded the Carl von Ossietzky Medal from the International League of Human Rights in 2014, and he has been working with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and he is a member of the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

He says in his book, concerning the connection with data and human rights:

“The freedom of a country can only be measured by its respect for the rights of its citizens, and it’s my conviction that these rights are in fact limitations of state power that define exactly where and when a government may not infringe into that domain of personal or individual freedoms that during the American Revolution was called “liberty” and during the Internet Revolution is called “privacy.” It’s been six years since I came forward because I witnessed a decline in the commitment of so-called advanced governments throughout the world to protecting this privacy, which I regard—and the United Nations regards—as a fundamental human right. In the span of those years, however, this decline has only continued as democracies regress into authoritarian populism. Nowhere has this regression been more apparent than in the relationship of governments to the press.”  Snowden, Edward. Permanent Record (pp. 6-7). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

Across the world these technologies offer both opportunities to promote human rights and human rights protection, but also serious threats.


Editorial. (2018). Cambridge Analytica controversy must spur researchers to update data ethics. Nature, 555(7698), 559-560. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-03856-4

Snowden, E. (2019). Permanant Record. London: MacMillan.

Areas od Focus

  • Big Data
  • Artificial Intelliigence
  • Machine learning
  • Online testing and health records

Human Rights Issues

  • Privacy
  • Misuse of Data (freedom of movement, speech, thought)