The impacts of surveillance technologies in Iran was discussed by a panel at ‘Our Rights, Our Fight, Our Future’ Forum, in Taipei, where the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)  member organisations from across the globe gathered for its 40th Congress. Opened by the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor, Fatu Bensuda and Taiwan’s president, the Congress is taking place during October 21-25, 2019. Bringing together more than 400 representatives of local, regional and international civil society, experts, diplomats and representatives of international institutions, the event focuses on several interconnected struggles ranging from indigenous resistance to environmental destruction, strategic litigation for enforcing human rights, abolition of death penalty, LGBTI movement’s fight against discriminaiton, acountability at the ICC and human rights in the digital age. 

“Advancement of  surveillance technologies in Iran involves far more than some insignificant potential human rights abuses. It is about destroying the last residue of civil society in Iran, violating numerous human rights of Iranian people and putting thousands of lives at risk,” said Mohmmad Nayyeri, Justice for Iran’s legal advisor to the panel on ‘Surveillance, censorship, artificial intelligence: Human rights in the digital era’ on Monday, 21 October.

Focussing on new technologies and artificial intelligence that enable state censorship and surveillance in Iran, Nayyeri elaborated on how new technologies that are critical sources and tools of empowerment in the hands of citizens, can easily become tools of surveillance, censorship and information control by states and state entities in non-democratic and authoritarian countries like Iran. 

The panel, moderated by Chiou Wentsong from Taiwan Association for Human Rights, began by a keynote speech by Professor Ben Wagner, Director of Privacy and Sustainable Computing Lab in Austria. In his remarks he focused on surveillance and censorship in the form of AI algorithms in both public and private sectors. He highlighted concerns about how pervasive AI and automated decision making are becoming in our lives and what risks they pose on human rights. 

Maryse Artiguelong, the Vice-President of FIDH, was the next speaker who commented on facial recognition systems in France, now installed in public places, including in a high school. She also talked about collection of biometric data without individuals’ consent. Caitlin Schultz from Human Rights in China also discussed the issue of surveillance in the context of China and protests in Hong Kong.

During Justice for Iran’s presentation, it was further argued that although Iran is not at the forefront of advancements in surveillance technology, largely due to imported technologies and knowhow, it is making problematic attempts to take surveillance and censorship to a new level by using new and more sophisticated technologies. For example, in 2018 Iranian officials introduced a new ‘smart’ facial recognition system with the capability of connecting to cctv cameras and providing real-time facial recognition. In the absence of legal safeguards and an independent judiciary, this would violate the rights of Iranian people to life, freedom from torture, privacy, and freedom of speech and assembly. In addition, given that civil activists and human rights defenders in Iran are already subject to state abuse, this could further increase the risks for such activists and subject them to more dangerous and insurmountable  challenges.

Human rights lawyer, Mohammad Nayyeri, emphasised the responsibility of states and businesses to refrain from providing technologies of surveillance and censorship to authoritarian states like Iran. An important and relevant case presented was a 2016 agreement between Italian telecommunication company Italtel and the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI), regarding the development of the Iranian telecommunications sector. In 2017, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Justice for Iran (JFI) and Redress filed a complaint with the Italian NCP against Italtel Group. The Complainants argued that Italtel had breached multiple principles of the OECD Guidelines in relation to its business activities in Iran. The complainants argued that the advanced technologies and services offered by Italtel to Iran’s TCI would risk contributing to Internet censorship and suppression of a wide range of fundamental freedoms and human rights in Iran. The agreement, they further argued, would also empower and equip Iranian authorities and entities including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to further crush political and civil liberties throughout the country and cyberspace. 

In conclusion, Nayyeri invited human rights groups to use the available international mechanisms to fight back against normalisation of impunity and repression and to also pursue binding international regulation (e.g. binding treaty on business and human rights) to call for sanctions against state and corporations that refuse to comply with  international standards. 

FIDH holds its congress every three years. The global event amplifies the voices of human rights defenders throughout the world. It also provides a forum to discuss issues of mutual concern to determine the most effective means of strengthening the fight for greater protection of human rights.