NEW YORK: Digital technologies have profoundly transformed every facet of society. They offer endless opportunities for development, education and social inclusion, and are transforming the process of advocacy on issues such as human rights and humanitarianism, making it possible to mobilize large numbers of people around the world quickly around important topics that require urgent attention.
However, technological advances are also increasingly being misused by governments and terrorist groups to cause instability and exacerbate conflicts, including through the online spread of disinformation and hate speech.
These were among the main points made by Rosemarie DiCarlo, the UN’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs on Monday during a Security Council meeting on technology and security. It was the second signature event organized by the US delegation, which holds the rotating presidency of the council this month, after a debate last week about conflict and food security.
The Security Council has become increasingly involved in efforts to address cybersecurity issues and the role of information and communication technologies in influencing and shaping events in modern societies. The UN has also been working to leverage digital technologies to enhance its work in the field.
During a briefing at the start of the American presidency of the council, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US envoy to the UN, said that the issue is “a new and important focus for the Security Council” and that “it is long past time for the council to fully grapple with the impact of digital technologies.”
DiCarlo said that digital tools are helping to strengthen the UN’s information-gathering and early-warning capacities in many places. In Yemen, for example, the UN Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement has used mapping, geographic information systems and satellite technology tools to enhance its monitoring of the ceasefire in the governorate.
New technologies have also helped to remove barriers to access for groups that traditionally have been excluded from political and mediation processes and, therefore, have helped to promote inclusion, DiCarlo said. She gave as an example of this the digital discussions conducted with thousands of Libyans from all walks of life, which were broadcast on TV and social media.
“This effort increased the legitimacy of the process, as different communities saw that their voices could be heard,” she added.
Similarly, in Yemen digital technologies have enabled the UN’s special envoy to engage with hundreds of women across the country, DiCarlo said, “which provided insight on the gender dimensions of the war.”
However, she also warned that incidents involving the malicious use of digital technologies for political or military ends have quadrupled since 2015, and said that activities targeting infrastructure that helps to provide essential public services is particular concern.
A report by the UN Secretary General published in May 2020 noted that new technologies were too often used for surveillance, repression, censorship and online harassment, and called for greater efforts to develop guidance on how human rights standards apply in the digital age.
The UN Human Rights Council last month adopted a resolution concerning the role of states in countering the negative effects of disinformation on human rights. It called on members to refrain from conducting or sponsoring disinformation campaigns.
“Non-state actors are becoming increasingly adept at using low-cost and widely available digital technologies to pursue their agendas,” DiCarlo said.
“Groups such as (Daesh) and Al-Qaida remain active on social media, using platforms and messaging applications to share information and communicate with followers for the purposes of recruitment, planning and fundraising.”
Referring to the pernicious use of technology by “super-empowered, non-state actors,” Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s permanent representative to the UN, said that commercially available drones are now capable of flying faster, traveling greater distances, carrying larger payloads and leveraging artificial intelligence and other tools to operate without manual control.
“Drones do not just operate in the air,” she said. “On March 3, 2020, the Houthi terrorist group used a remotely operated drone boat laden with explosives to attack an oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.
“If successful, the attack would have had devastating effects not only on the tanker and the crew but on the environment, on local supply routes and on communities along the Yemeni coast who depend on the sea for their livelihood.”
The misuse of social media can also fuel polarization and violence, spread disinformation, radicalization, racism and misogyny, DiCarlo said.
She also expressed concern about the increasing use of internet shutdowns in times of active conflict which, she said, “deprive communities of their means of communication, work and political participation.”
She called on member states to seize what she described as a critical opportunity to build consensus on how digital technologies can be used for the good of people and the planet, while addressing their risks.