Data, the new conflict resource

Forget blood diamonds. There's a new resource being mined and exploited in the developing world: data. 

As development actors adopt new technologies at a rapid rate, data is fast becoming the development community's favourite cure-all. For its proponents, data has the potential to accelerate economic growth, catalyse innovation, and revolutionise the provision of development and humanitarian aid.  

Yet, much like other conflict resources, the data for development movement poses serious risks to the liberties of the same individuals who will purportedly benefit from its exploitation. By facilitating the generation, collection or analysis of information that is about individuals, 'data for development' may be enabling surveillance in the most insidious way. 

The promise of progress

Their theory is that with more data, aid programs will be more effective and sustainable. For data evangelists, two interrelated forms of data promise to revolutionise the development and humanitarian agendas: open data and big data. 

Open data implies the digitisation, publication and reproduction of data to enable it to be freely used, reused and redistributed. The data that is being made open is primarily that created by the public sector: maps, traffic, crime, travel schedules, government contracts and spending, and other data. The open data movement is framed as a way to enhance government accountability and support research.

Big data refers to the amassing and analysis of high volumes of digital data in order to uncover new correlations. Due to the rapid reproduction of the quantity and diversity of data generated by digital activities - call logs, mobile-banking transactions, online user-generated content, online searches, satellite images, etc. - new forms of analysis can be conducted and new correlations uncovered. With enough data, the theory goes, we even can try to predict behaviour based on past activities. 

What they fail to take into account, however, is the potential for abuses when founts of data are generated. Despite the serious privacy implications such data collection can have on individuals in developing countries, countless international development agencies and humanitarian organisations make the simple argument: more data equals more effective development.

This line of argument is outlined by a recent UN report that goes so far as to call for “a New Data Revolution”, with the movement being spearheaded by data evangelists like Robert Kirkpatrick and his colleagues at the UN Global Pulse. The World Bank, World Economic Forum and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development have also all jumped on board the data wagon. 

While it undoubtedly has a role to play in making development interventions smarter, we cannot rush to reap the benefits of advancements in data analysis without first considering the potential negative consequences of such advancements, and putting safeguards in place. Protecting the intimate details of individuals' lives must remain at the forefront of development minds, and should guide the design and implementation of data for development initiatives. 

Context matters

Data is not an amorphous or ephemeral thing. It is a tangible and permanent resource, derived from what we as individuals do in our every day lives, at home, in public, online, on our mobile phones. As individuals, we create data both consciously - when we use electronic voting systems, send text messages, or use mobile banking - and unconsciously - by simply carrying our mobile phone around with us. The data created by these activities can be mined to discern our movements, habits, interests, contacts, or other highly personal, even sensitive, characteristics.

Even when purportedly anonymous, data can be deanonymised or paired with multiple other data sources to reveal our identity or enable us to be profiled. The digitising and pairing of personal information results in a mosaic effect, allowing seemingly isolated data sets, which on first glance seem innocuous, to be built into very detailed profiles of individuals. As a result, individuals in developing countries have little recourse against the violation of their privacy, especially when considering that there is no international consensus on data protection standards, data protection legislation is mostly absent on the African continent, and few development and humanitarian organisations have self-standing data protection and privacy policies to guide their work in developing countries. 

Data analysis is the most banal, and yet perhaps the most malevolent, form of surveillance. This cannot be ignored, and hard questions need to be asked by development agencies before they blindly fall for the latest trends in technology. What data should be collected? How might the collation of data about individuals be misused to serve corporate or political interests? Even if the data is 'anonymised,' what is the likelihood that individuals could be identified? What can we discern about some people by tracking everyone's movements? How could health data be used to discriminate against a person living with HIV/AIDs, for example, or vulnerabilities in crisis mapping systems facilitate retributions against human rights defenders? Context matters.

These are not just hypothetical intellectual exercises. Development initiatives that generate, store, and centralise data for analysis may be misused for other purposes, with potentially grave consequences. In the aftermath of anti-government food protests in 2008, Egyptian authorities obtained call and text messages held by the private sector to track down and convict protesters. Data initiatives such as that conducted by Orange in Cote d’Ivoire have shown that even a basic mobile phone traffic data set can enable conclusions about social divisions and segregation on the basis of ethnicity, language, religion or political persuasion. As Alex Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT, points out, “imagine what Muammar Qaddafi would have done with this sort of data." 

The dark side of data

At the centre of this movement is the widespread adoption of mobile phones across the developing world. Previously unimagined amounts and types of data are being generated on banking, mapping, voting, browsing, reporting on health status, claiming benefits, and reporting crimes -- information coveted by data for development folks. 

However, the very thing that makes the data generated or collected by mobile phones valuable for development agencies is what makes these programs risky for individual privacy. It's not just data on "banking" and "voting." These are some of the most intimate details of an individual’s life: financial records, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and familial records -- the very things that could land you on the wrong side of an oppressive government.

For proponents of data for development, however, the economic incentives of using data far outweigh the potential drawbacks. Many data evangelists see data in purely economic terms, as an untapped resource to be mined and exploited. Kirkpatrick of the Global Pulse likens trends in poverty and disease to those in fashion or sporting brands; the whole endeavour is a well-supported gamble, an “exercise in entrepreneurship." 

Development is not just, or even mostly, about economics. The core of development is building capacity and infrastructure, bridging historical divisions, ending conflict, and addressing social vulnerabilities. Such tasks cannot be achieved solely through data collection and analysis. If data evangelists wants to empower individuals in developing countries through data, the question they need to ask is not what problems can data solve, but what problems might their data programs cause, and how might development interventions be designed to ensure that individual rights are protected.

Otherwise, attempts to close inequality gaps, provide quality healthcare, and promote other forms of development will go on to create a whole new set of issues, replacing one systemic problem with another. Privacy is a universal right, something that must be protected by development agencies - not as an inconvenience that can be discarded in favour of the latest data collection technologies.

Just as the exploitation of oil, diamonds and other natural resources in African countries by foreign actors has catalysed countless human rights abuses across the continent, so too does the data for development movement have the potential to undermine civil liberties and cement inequalities throughout the developing world. 

About the author

Carly Nyst is Head of International Advocacy at Privacy International.