Civil Rights Leaders Announce Principles to Protect Civil Rights and Technology

MEDIA CONTACT: Kristiana Jordan, [email protected], 240-271-1159

New principles underscore the need for civil rights protections
in technology development and implementation

Today, dozens of leading civil rights and technology advocacy groups joined together to announce the 2020 Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data. These are proactive principles that, if collectively followed, will help protect vulnerable communities’ civil rights from rapidly advancing technologies. The agenda was created to push back against overreach by industry and government and to meet the acute need for new legal protections to ensure that technology is designed and used in ways that respects civil rights, preserves privacy, ensures transparency and holds both governments and companies accountable for harm.

Advocates designed the principles both in response to the current risks to civil rights – including COVID-19, a surge in hate-based violence, private sector and government surveillance, and disinformation on social media platforms designed to manipulate or suppress voter participation – and with an eye toward how technology can meet its promise and affirmatively promote justice and equity. 

“Technological progress should promote equity and justice as it enhances safety, economic opportunity and convenience for everyone,” the principles read. “But far too often, people subject to historical and ongoing discrimination… face disproportionate surveillance and bear the brunt of harms amplified by new technologies.”

The 2020 principles include: 

  • Ending high-tech profiling;
  • Ensuring just outcomes in sensitive automated decisions;
  • Preserving constitutional principles;
  • Ensuring that technology serves everyone;
  • Defining responsible use of personal information and enhancing individual rights; and
  • Making systems transparent and accountable.

This is the latest evolution of principles first released in 2014, which guided the work of advocates, policymakers and industry leaders to promote justice and equity in the development and use of technology. The Obama administration cited the 2014 principles in the report “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values.”

To see a full description of these principles, read below and visit

Principles for 2020

Technological progress should promote equity and justice as it enhances safety, economic opportunity and convenience for everyone. But far too often, people subject to historical and ongoing discrimination — including Black, Indigenous and all communities of color, religious and ethnic minorities, people living on low-income, the LGBTQIA community, people with disabilities, people who have been incarcerated, women and others — face disproportionate surveillance and bear the brunt of harms amplified by new technologies.

There is an urgent need for new legal protections to ensure that technology is designed and used in ways that respect civil rights, preserve privacy, ensure transparency and hold both nation-states and companies accountable for harm. The following civil rights principles must be upheld:

  • Ending High-Tech Profiling. Surveillance technologies are empowering governments and companies to collect and analyze vast amounts of information about people. Too often, these tools are deployed without proper safeguards, or are themselves biased. In some cases, surveillance technologies should simply never be deployed. In other cases, clear limitations and robust auditing mechanisms are needed to ensure that these tools are used in a responsible and equitable way. Law should hold both the government and private actors accountable for abuses. 
  • Ensuring Justice in Automated Decisions. Statistical technologies, including machine learning, are informing important decisions in areas such as employment, health, education, lending, housing, immigration and the criminal legal system. Decisionmaking technologies too often replicate and amplify patterns of discrimination in society. These tools must be judged not only by their design but also, even primarily, by their impacts – especially on communities that have been historically marginalized. Transparency and oversight are imperative to ensuring that these systems promote just and equitable outcomes, and in many cases the best outcome is to not use automated tools in high-stakes decisions at all.
  • Preserving Constitutional Principles. Enforcement of constitutional principles such as equal protection and due process must keep pace with government use of technology. Search warrant requirements and other limitations on surveillance and policing are critical to protecting  fundamental civil rights and civil liberties, especially for communities who have been historically marginalized and subject to disproportionate government surveillance. Moreover, governments should not compel companies to build technologies that undermine basic rights, including freedom of expression, privacy and freedom of association. 
  • Ensuring that Technology Serves People Historically Subject to Discrimination. Technology should not merely avoid harm, but actively make people’s lives better.  Governments, companies and individuals who design and deploy technology should strive to mitigate societal inequities. This includes improving access to the internet and addressing biases in data and decisionmaking. Technologies should be deployed in close consultation with the most affected communities, especially those who have historically suffered the harms of discrimination.
  • Defining Responsible Use of Personal Information and Enhancing Individual Rights. Corporations have pervasive access to people’s personal data, which can lead to discriminatory, predatory and unsafe practices. Personal data collected by companies also often end up in the hands of the government, either through the direct sale of personal data or through data-driven systems purpose-built for the government. Clear baseline protections for data collection, including both primary and secondary uses of data, should be enacted to help prevent these harms.
  • Making Systems Transparent and Accountable. Governments and corporations must provide people with clear, concise and easily accessible information on what data they collect and how it is used. This information can help equip advocates and individuals with the information to ensure that technologies are used in equitable and just ways. Any technology that has a consequential impact on people’s lives should be deployed with a comprehensive, accessible and fair appeals process with robust mechanisms for enforcement, and governments and corporations must be accountable for any misuse of technology or data. When careful examination reveals that a new, invasive technology poses threats to civil rights and civil liberties, such technology should not be used under any circumstance.



  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC
  • Benton Institute for Broadband & Society
  • Brennan Center for Justice
  • Center for Democracy and Technology
  • Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law 
  • Color Of Change
  • Common Cause
  • Demand Progress Education Fund
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Free Press
  • Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
  • The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights 
  • The Leadership Conference Education Fund
  • MediaJustice
  • Media Matters for America
  • Movement Alliance Project
  • NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF)
  • National Hispanic Media Coalition
  • New America’s Open Technology Institute
  • Open MIC (Open Media and Information Companies Initiative)
  • Public Knowledge
  • Ranking Digital Rights
  • UnidosUS
  • Upturn