ICT4D after Snowden

From the Snowden leaks to the deep state-why the surveillance state is an issue for development.

Edward Snowden (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Snowden-2.jpg)

Maybe the Snowden-NSA-surveillance debate does not have a direct and obvious link to ICT4D or development debates. In fact, I do not recall reading many comments in the development blogosphere that explicitly link these two issues. The absence of a broader debate may have partly to do with the overall fatigue and fatalism that Snowden’s leaks and the subsequent reporting seem to incur, but partly also with the depoliticized nature of large parts of the ICT4D and development community. I believe that our believe in open data, ICT 4 Good, the positive power of the Internet and mobile technology should be shaken by the transatlantic discoveries, rights violations and revelations that once seemed to be confined to conspiracy websites.

Nothing suggests that other states, institutions or companies would not follow these developments as digital infrastructure becomes available in developing countries. As critical ICT4D researchers, advocates and implementers we need to be more aware of the hidden intentions that the partners we work with in various fields may have. We are very unlikely able to stop any of those intended side-effects that come with better connectivity, better data, better analytical tools and state agencies and companies with an insatiable hunger for data,
but we still have the duty to remain vigilant and critical in the digital age. Critical development research and practice did not prevent industrial ‘modernization’, structural adjustment or liberal peacebuilding interventions, but many always tried their battle against the windmills of powerful mainstream thinking, policies & practices.

How can we demand accountable ICT4D governance?
The short answer is: We can’t. The corporate-state-complex has a tight grip on digital technology and the current situation where a regime under pressure may simply turn off the Internet for a while (Syria, Venezuela) will eventually give way to regimes that collect and analyze critical digital data during election campaigns, political scandals and so on and use them to retaliate against opposition groups, unruly regions or other outspoken critics. ISPs and telcos, often state-owned or owned by Northern parent companies anyway, will likely be cooperating with the authorities if asked to do so and this can easily create a climate of suspicion and mistrust if medical data, private information or well-intended text messages about, say, absentee teachers become part of the government’s surveillance apparatus. If the British NHS can sell patient data, so can and will other health providers and if delicate questions about gender, sex or ethnicity are involved many well-meant development projects to collect better data could play into the hands of political conflict or worse.

Dual use – easy abuse?
I recently enjoyed a presentation about a project in a Latin American country where researchers have started to install remote monitoring and sensoring technologies to spot landslides that often block roads. The technology can be used to warn drivers and dispatch maintenance crews. Sounds like a good idea to me. But only at the end of the presentation did the researcher mention that the army and (secret) police are also very interested in the technology to monitor ‘rebel movements’ and other ‘security-related’ activities. So geographical data about landslides immediately becomes political and no one in the research team seem to have spent a lot of time thinking about power, access and the dark sides of the technology: ‘We rely on government buy-in so there isn’t much we can do about it’, said the researcher when I asked him about the dual use aspect. Many big ICT4D projects rely on government buy-ins and I am not sure how much such aspects are discussed. Since the Snowden leaks we know that governments agencies will intercept data, analyze data, collect data and store data regardless of any policy or law.
What does that mean for a specific ICT4D project and what are potential dangers for the constituencies involved? Would you walk away from a promising project and publicly blow a whistle on the government and its plans to use data for things other than the
public good?

ICT 4 Bad
This is not the first time in history that scientists, social scientists, activists and citizens need to come together. The peace movement of the 1960s to the 1980s is an interesting example of how nuclear technology, both in the civil and military realm, became part of the social discourse of debate and civil disobedience regarding the arms race, nuclear proliferation and the potential of nuclear war. Today, some IT companies sell surveillance technology to prevent another
Arab Spring’ or at least digital civil society engagement and it may be time for different part of the ‘industry’ to re-occupy the ICT4D and P discourse.

Even if it may sound a bit repetitive: ICT4D needs to re-politicize its act. And it needs tech-sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers, in short critical social science knowledge. If we want to implement ‘sustainable development’ in the digital age we need to make sure that rights-based approaches take digital rights seriously and that ICT4D does not all too easily become absorbed by big data and scaling-up dreams where the industrial-surveillance complex highjacks the empowering and empowerment agenda of progressive technology-aided development.

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