The growing use of surveillance technologies, drones and wearables has serious implications for employees’ and individual's rights – to privacy, for one – which civil society and the private sector have yet to fully explore, diversified major Anglo American international, government and sustainability relations group head Froydis Cameron-Johansson has said.
Speaking during a Human Rights Dialogue hosted by the Minerals Council South Africa on March 17, she outlined themes and trends that had emerged post-Covid, including the restriction of civic freedoms, violence and harassment, low-carbon transition risks, corporate accountability and litigation, increasing expectations, labour rights, and technology and human rights.
She pointed out that drone adoption in the mining industry had increased by 198% between 2017 and 2018 alone and cited the increased use of artificial intelligence and wearables to monitor employees’ behaviour and record health-related data.
This, combined with the introduction of various ‘track and trace’ applications adopted by organisations and governments to combat the spread of Covid-19, has created an environment where companies and governments have access to personal information that can be exploited, if these actors do not respect basic human rights.
“Everybody has a phone. You're going onto an app, it asks you for all this personal information that you probably wouldn't ever give a stranger, except you're just [sending] it into the Metaverse, so to speak.”
Cameron-Johannsson explained that, over the last two years, this dispensing of personal information “exploded exponentially”, because of Covid-19. She noted that, before the onset of the pandemic, the notion that the general public would willingly allow the government to track their everyday movements was laughable.
“But here we are with our iPhones.”
She commented that she does not believe civil society as a collective has truly grasped data and the implications of data surveillance, or what it all means from a rights perspective.
Further, she remarked that, while it was “incredibly valuable” to have track and trace applications and technologies to manage the pandemic response, “it’s a huge risk now to human rights, to the right to privacy, to the right to not be surveilled all the time”.
“The interesting thing will now be in countries where they instigated a lot of surveillance; what happens now? Do they roll those back? Are people just used to it? How is this now going to work?”
She also stressed that the implications of using these technologies, particularly in terms of respecting and safeguarding rights, had not really been explored in their entirety, from a mining perspective.
“There are a lot of wearables. We use them for monitoring in terms of health and fatigue monitoring, as well as speed monitoring. But how then is that data being used? Even simple things like storing vaccination records under the General Data Protection Regulation rules is very, very difficult. So how do we balance those health requirements to keep people safe, [while] ensuring the right to privacy as well?”
With regard to drones, she mentioned that, aside from being used for mapping and geosciences, they can also be used for security and monitoring. She stressed that the fact that drones record activities on and around the mine licence means that companies must be “very mindful” when creating privacy policies with respect to video capabilities, as well as when engaging people that are affected.
University of Johannesburg Professor Shafika Isaacs commended the dialogue for raising the topic of digital justice and cautioned against the “dominant evangelical narrative around the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)”.
Isaacs noted that there was an erroneous perception that the 4IR is “going to save us”, and that many stakeholders look to technology and the 4IR as a panacea; that if everybody had access to the Internet, that would solve problems ranging from a lack of competitiveness through to high unemployment rates and societal inequality.
She stressed that the narrative around the 4IR must be disrupted. “There is a question about to what extent civil society has engaged in these issues, and there’s been widespread engagement around our notions of data justice, in the face of the rapid growth of datafication in all of our systems.”
She commented that if mining companies were committed to respecting and safeguarding human rights, then they must engage on responsible and ethical artificial intelligence (AI), and the use of more humane AI and technological architecture.
“I think that is also the space where the mining houses can play quite a constructive role, if there is the political will, to have these kinds of conversations.”
The dialogue was hosted in collaboration with Anglo American and the Global Compact Network South Africa. It was facilitated by Synergy Global Consulting.