Greenkim: Well, for one, in this part of the region the marketing folks do respect this sans the few ruthless ones… but the people themselves do not really care about it. Too much complacency contributes to the slack of data privacy/security for them, only for them to find out too late… We need better privacy laws out there, which somewhat exists but not reinforced. I’d know as I work on data a lot!
Why digital privacy and security are important for development
New technologies provide the development sector with powerful tools to carry out its work more effectively, but they also introduce risks
Digital technologies, such as mobile phones and the internet, provide the development sector with new opportunities to plan and co-ordinate activities, expose hidden truths, and mobilise and engage new audiences. But it’s not all good news: new technologies introduce plenty of risks as well.
Recent posts on the Global development site reveal there remain mixed ideas about what we mean by “development”. Eric Gutierrez, Christian Aid’s senior adviser on governance, argued recently that corruption is bad for business and thus bad for the economy and, ultimately, bad for development as well. Earlier, Mark Tran argued in a provocative post that, given the examples of nations which have been lifted out of poverty by corrupt or repressive regimes, suggests that, although we might not like to admit it, good governance, government accountability and uncorrupt rule are not necessarily prerequisites to development.
If you believe an over-arching ambition of development should be to ensure the benefits of progress and plenty are shared fairly among citizens, then you will likely agree it’s important to have a government willing to create policies that attempt to remedy existing inequities. To do this in a democratic way, these policies, and the practices to implement them, need to be transparent to ensure people can assess how government and development money is being spent, where it is being distributed and if it achieves what was intended.
Access to information technologies – such as mobile phones, the internet, social networking sites and video – can play a critical role in helping people hold governments and development agencies accountable. When used to collect, monitor and assess information about needs, spending, activities and impacts, technologies support not only accountability but also – by allowing people to participate in their own governance – freedom of expression and civic participation.
The problem is that while new communication technologies have become cheaper and easier to use, they have also become more opaque. There are concerns about who owns data when it’s uploaded on or created using a commercial service; there is confusion about default privacysettings; and there is the issue of whether individuals are able to control traces of sensitive information they or others leave behind.
As a recent special edition of the Wall Street Journal – entitled What They Know – revealed, there are many “invisible” layers that track what we do online. One very popular website was found to install hundreds of tracking files on to the hardware of anyone visiting it and many of these files were shared across companies, without the knowledge of the website user.
The security and privacy of technologies, applications and online services have implications for us all, but is particularly pertinent for people who use technologies to uncover fraud, corruption and development malpractice. Not all governments and development actors are willing to accept their actions being questioned and wrongdoings exposed. The risks people face in doing this range from censorship of their voices and their content to physical threats.
Such risks are familiar to anti-corruption and transparency advocates around the world. In the Indian state of Gujarat, activists have been using the 2005 Right to Information Act to expose the state government’s corruption, mining scams and mismanagement of funds and resources. India Today magazine reports that last year saw 28 incidents of harassment and violence against citizens who lodged right to information applications, including 10 murders.
The UN Human Rights Council found that the “Tokyo Two”, who uncovered corruption in the Japanese whaling programme, were harassed and abused by authorities. Or consider the work of independent news publications such as Irrawaddy, which report on the corrupt practices and atrocities of Burma’s military-backed regime. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently reported that they are constantly fending off attacks that shut down their website and choke news distribution.
While there are many ways we can protect sensitive information, there is no magic bullet. Simple technical options available for digital security range from substituting https for http when accessing websites (this adds a layer of encryption), to using a programme that generates very hard-to-break passwords. More complex options include using encryption software and customising settings on tools and services. There are also old-fashioned techniques like using codes to communicate and store information.
The difficulty is developing a workable strategy for digital privacy and security. For those exposing rights abuses and corruption, this strategy needs to be tempered with a need for a public identity and privacy. Some information needs to be widely circulated; some needs to be fiercely protected.
The ways we can address these dual needs depends on a future still unwritten, in terms of how governments and commercial companies will be legally permitted to configure new technologies and use information about us. Much needs to be done if UN charters or government policies are to play a role in supporting citizens to effectively and safely use digital technologies to expose wrongdoings.
Meanwhile, we should all be thinking about what kind of digital future we want and what risks we might be taking or asking others to take when we promote digital technologies as tools for transparent, fair and just development.
• Dr Tanya Notley is a researcher at Tactical Technology Collective, which supports rights advocates to use information, communications and digital technologies to maximise the impact of their work and has produced a series of animations to raise awareness about digital privacy and security risks