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.


  1. Very good points! Being naive and ignorant, do you have any suggestions on how to apply this vigilance - Edward Snowden´s courage is unique.

  2. I agree with the importans of the subject, but not that it isn't on the agenda. For years the subject has risen in the aspects of knowledge and recognition, but of course Snowden and the last year's concern has woken many.

    During the last years it has for example been discussed on many conferences. Not at least Stockholm Internet Forum which will this year take place in 27-28 May (http://www.stockholminternetforum.se/). It is the 3 year this year that Carl Bildt invites to the event. With around 450 participants from almost 100 countries there will be a well debated subject. Being the organizer Ministry of Foreign affairs and Sida (which I represent) we are keen discuss it from as deep as possible, and especially with a development perspective. We are far from the most early or most knowledgeable around the issue but for more information on the subject I would like to point out a few of the actors that have been working with it for a long time including research, NGOs and tech:
    - CitizenLab been working since 2002. And describe themselves as "an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, Canada focusing on advanced research and development at the intersection of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), human rights, and global security."
    - Privacy international, investigate the secret world of government surveillance and expose the companies enabling it. We litigate to ensure that surveillance is consistent with the rule of law. We advocate for strong national, regional, and international laws that protect privacy.
    -The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development.
    - Torproject, it is used every day for a wide variety of purposes by normal people, the military, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and many others.

    This was just to mention a few.

    When it comes to solution there are much to do, and on different levels (individual/organizational/governmental and inter-govermental). In the end we are all more or less responsible for our own security and protection of privacy and we are all each day taking steps to either protect or the opposite in our own action. Organisations including NGOs, companies and agencies has to be more observant for example how they collect and protect data. Governments on how the protect citizens and especially for a rights perspective, but of course also a broader security perspective. Last but not least UN and others has to continue to apply the human rights, and to do that in the digital era with are in.

    I totally agree with "to implement ‘sustainable development’ in the digital age we need to make sure that rights-based approaches take digital rights seriously". twitter:@jenskarberg

  3. Thanks for your comment, Jens! I wish I could attend the Internet Forum in May, but I will be traveling with the GloCal classroom. But maybe we should set up a discussion as a ComDev seminar or in Stockholm and take this important topic further?


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