Development & Surveillance: The Responsibility of Donors

A few weeks ago, Citizen Lab revealed that they had located spyware from FinFisher in South Africa and Nigeria. Along with previous evidence that it was operating in Ethiopia – as well as numerous other low- to middle-income countries outside of Africa – the Citizen Lab report is just the most recent piece of data pointing to the emergence of considerable surveillant capacity in the developing world. Not all of these systems are as obviously troubling as FinFisher; indeed, many are being explicitly and genuinely promoted as development tools.

From surveillance drones in the DRC to national biometric identification databases like India’s Aadhaar, the ambiguity of technologies for collecting, tracking, and managing personal data is on full display. Even the widely-hailed success of mobile phones are deeply ambiguous with regard to surveillance and privacy (as the growth of SIM registration requirements demonstrate).

For a variety of reasons, though, these issues are not being addressed with the seriousness they demand as donors, aid organizations, and humanitarian groups adopt drones, biometrics, and other information technologies. There may certainly be good reasons in some situations to adopt these technologies, but doing so without appropriate safeguards and regulations – as is frequently the case – is, to say the least, irresponsible.

To raise some of these issues, Carly Nyst and I have a piece in Slate, Privacy for the Other 5 Billion:

Humanitarian organizations, development funders, and governments have a responsibility to critically assess these new forms of surveillance, consult widely, and implement safeguards such as data protection, judicial oversight, and the highest levels of security. In much of the world, these sorts of precautions are sorely lacking: For example, despite the success of information technology in Africa, only 10 countries on the continent have some form of data protection law on the books (and even those rarely have the capacity or will to enforce them)…

Given the enormity of the challenge facing these organizations, it is perhaps easy not to prioritize issues like privacy and security of personal data, but the same arguments were once made against gender considerations and environmental protections in development. Aid programs that involve databases of personal information—especially of those most vulnerable and marginalized—must adopt stringent policies and practices relating to the collection, use, and sharing of that data. Best practices should include privacy impact assessments and consider the scope for “privacy by design” methodologies.

Quantification, Biometrics and Social Protection in South Africa

During 2012, I researched the history and use of quantification and biometric identification in South African social policy. The study has been supported by the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion at UC Irvine and was recently presented at their annual conference.

Liz Losh blogged some of the discussion and a video of the panel is embedded below (beginning at the 45 minute mark):

Kevin Donovan of the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town presented last in the panel session with “Composing Development? Biometrics, Smart Cards and Financial Inclusion in South Africa’s Social Protection Initiative” with research from South Africa that reflected an historical “mania for measurement” in a country that was today “awash with statistics.” Although biometrics was a legacy of the apartheid regime, as a modality of power that controlled human mobility that dated back to the introduction of fingerprinting in 1891, it continues today as a way to manage the disbursement of small cash grants for old age or disability and could be a part of democratic contestation as a rule-based activity.  He argued that statistics serve as a “technology of trust,” and that the image of perverse incentives to have children out of wedlock in order to qualify for funds was actually more complex in offering a range of types of benefits through grant programs.  He noted the importance of civil society’s “guerilla auditors” and cited the work of Kregg Heatherington on Paraguay to understand the political dynamic at work.

Given the scale of the country, however, there have been major implementation problems, such as how to connect more than 10 million pockets to the National Treasury.  The government’s contractor, NET1, has enrolled 21 million citizens in its biometric initiatives and may be as inclusive as mobile phones and propagates an ideology of objectivity and rationality.  Supposedly “ghosts” or duplicates were being removed from the system, but Donovan argued that this was actually a “myth,” and he quoted Speaking into the Air? A History of the Idea of Communication by JD Peters on doubts that “communications will solve the problem of communication” and “better wiring will eliminate the ghosts.”  Donovan also challenged the conceit that “bodies were stable unchanging repositories that could be turned into information in a database.”

Biometric failures seemed to be inevitable.  Furthermore, race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability were expressed in ways that fostered misidentification.  For example, a cut on a finger or a history of manual labor might inhibit accurate machine reading.  Nonetheless, this system was likely to continue in its present form, according to Donovan.  Many South Africans might be suspicious of fingerprinting, but they might also be in great need of cash.  They may even see the payments as “gifts” not entitlements and so put up with biometrics for the near future.  Without a strong privacy lobby or strong data integrity laws little was likely to change.

Donovan closed with more speculative remarks about the potential to depoliticize grantmaking and the intersection of biometrics with more contested financial practices.  He asserted that simplified technical systems only allowed for yes/no answers rather than processing more complicated questions about causes of poverty and might negate legitimate livelihood strategies as an impersonal machine replaces an understanding bureaucrat.  He called upon the theories of James C. Scott about ”infrapolitics” to explain everyday acts of dissimulation such as grant fraud.  He also discussed how politics involve getting inside the “silver box” of the technological system and how the removal of subjective discretion is biased toward those that control the technology, for example, by quashing people’s own ways to gain access to these payments by sharing knowledge about eligibility.  South Africa has both a developed financial system and a large informal economy, which can exacerbate existing exploitation of the poor through automatic deductions.  Digital banking means digital data trails in “the dark side of financial inclusion.”  The “standardizing and formatting of the poor” have both positive and negative effects.

This panel about scams, betting, and fraud might not necessarily match the conventional financial services model and narrative of development, but these seemingly subversive practices do reveal how digital mobile money might have unintended consequences.  In characterizing financial inclusion, the words of an NGO official might say it all: “Financial inclusion means your money isn’t with you.”

Mobile Money, Network Power & Development as Freedom

The International Journal of Communication recently published an article I wrote on the implications of Kenya’s popular mobile money service, M-PESA, for Sen’s theory of development as freedom.

Mobile Money, More Freedom? The Impact of M-PESA’s Network Power on Development as Freedom

The role of ICTs in development is contested between those who believe they will facilitate human development and those who believe they are, at most, impotent, and at worst, counterproductive. This article uses an examination of M-PESA, a large-scale mobile financial service in Kenya, to argue that the impact of ICTs on development as freedom differs with both the specific conceptualization of freedom used, and the institutional arrangement of the technology in question. The article’s novel conceptual model links the adoption of mobile money to its impact, suggesting that the dominant individualistic and instrumental approaches to ICT4D overlook the ways in which power and domination function alongside freedom when these factors are considered relationally and substantively. I demonstrate that the internal plurality of the concept of freedom leads to both new forms of empowerment, but also to limitations on choice and new forms of dominance. In closing, I suggest institutional and technological arrangements that are most likely to maximize the development potential of mobile money.

The full version is available here.

Update: Thanks to Bill Maurer of IMTFI, this paper was featured in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article entitled “Monopoly Power in Mobile Money.”

“The Internet” as Ideology

I have an essay in the LA Review of Books on Jenna Burrell’s new book, Invisible Users. The book is an excellent ethnographic investigation of the youth in Ghana’s Internet cafes. More generally, it is a carefully argued and theoretically informed study that I think highlights some weaknesses in the dominant trends in Internet studies:

Burrell’s book suggests what is perhaps a more fundamental weakness in both academic and lay discussions about the Internet. Debates about the significance of the Internet – from its role in the Arab Spring to political polarization – usually revolve around a few positions. The Internet, it is held, is either (a) good or (b) bad for a set of values, such as democracy, but when this raises the specter of technological determinism (which it inevitably does), both sides tend to agree that the Internet is (c) a neutral tool, to be used for good or bad depending on the social context.

These positions take for granted a fixed Internet, a predetermined and knowable entity, an artifact distinct from its social utilization. But the analytical divide between technology and society is misleading, and invocations of “the Internet” often serve symbolic or ideological goals rather than corresponding to any static reality.

This dominant reductionist approach defines certain values, practices and technologies as “the Internet”, and ignores many others, especially the concrete ways in which it is experienced everyday, such as by the youth in Ghana’s Internet cafes. Of course, shorthand is useful, and endless precision is both tedious and implausible. But perhaps to really understand “the Internet” we need to forget it as a unified “it” altogether, something that exists within a context and can be used for good or bad. This instrumentalist conception too often prompts the wrong questions and obfuscates differences and changes. Indeed, the important and interesting questions related to “the Internet” are almost invariably the ones where it isn’t a unified whole, but rather messy and fractured, in ongoing relationship with people.

As an example, consider the furor over L. Gordon Crovitz’s WSJ op-ed a few weeks ago that argued “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet.” The piece was widely condemned, and while I have no great affinity for Crovitz’s political agenda or factual errors, the same debunkers that were ready to show that the government did launch TCP/IP are almost certainly guilty of using “the Internet” to refer to more than that suite of protocols.

You really need to look no further than  The Internet Defense League (formed by many at the opposite end of the political spectrum than Crovitz); surely they are not only concerned with defending TCP/IP, but there has been no great debunking of their definition of the Internet. Or, as Evgeny Morozov pointed to the other day, consider this hilariously nonsensical TechCrunch headline: “The next battle over Internet freedom could be over 3D printing.”

The fact of the matter is, “the Internet” is usually used as a symbolic claim to a certain worldview rather than any particularly accurate definition. And given the lack of fixity, such an accurate definition is unlikely to be universal. As such, it has lost much of its analytical value, but books like Burrell’s show that by turning to everyday practice, representational discourse and the multiple forms of power, studies of “the Internet” can begin improving our understanding of the phenomenon.

You can read the full review here.

The Rise of African SIM Registration: Mobility, Identity, Surveillance & Resistance

Aaron Martin and I have written a paper on the rise of a new form of surveillance in Africa, namely SIM card registration. We were interested in documenting the trend, pointing to some of its emerging effects, and noting the dynamics of resistance. In the interest of starting a wider conversation on the topic, we are releasing a working paper that we hope to finalize in the coming weeks; in the meantime, feedback is welcome.

The Rise of African SIM Registration: Mobility, Identity, Surveillance & Resistance

Abstract: The African experience with mobile telephony has been extolled as one of the most important moments in the continent’s ongoing economic development. Yet in a region where mobile telephony is the predominant form of communication, SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) registration schemes are threatening to throttle the technology’s developmental potential. These mandates, which require the registration of identity information to activate a mobile SIM card, are fast becoming universal in Africa, with little to no public debate about the wider social or political effects. Whereas some authors have explored the motivations behind these drives, as well as their potential economic impacts, this paper focuses its critique on the varying forms of resistance to SIM registration as well as the emerging effects like access barriers, linkages to financialization, crime, and Africa’s budding surveillance society. Viewing SIM registration through a surveillance lens, it examines elements of resistance across different relevant social groups.

The working paper is number 186 from the LSE Information Systems and Innovation Group, and is available from SSRN here.

Update: This research was covered by IT Web Africa and the BBC World Service.

IC4D 2012: Maximizing Mobile

I have a chapter on mobile money in the most recent version of the World Bank’s flagship ICT4D publication, Information and Communication for Development 2012. The chapter serves as an overview of the sector, with special focus on the potential to use mobile money for meaningful financial inclusion, as well as some of the emerging issues such as universal access, competition & interoperability, and product innovation. You can download the chapter here, or visit the World Bank’s page for the full report with chapters on health, agriculture, entrepreneurship, governance, and broadband policy.

Abstract: Chapter 4 looks at the use of mobile money as a general platform and critical infrastructure underpinning other economic sectors. It shows the benefits and potential impact of mobile money, especially for promoting financial inclusion. It provides an overview of the key factors driving the growth of mobile money services, the barriers and obstacles hindering their deployment, and emerging issues that the industry will face over the coming years.

Update: I wrote a short post for the World Bank’s Private Sector Development blog about what’s next for mobile money.

Seeing Like a Slum: Towards Open, Deliberative Development

I have an article in the most recent version of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs that makes an effort to connect the open development movement to some theories of political sociology without which I think transparency initiatives are likely to run into trouble, perhaps even leading to regressive outcomes.

Efforts like open mapping of low-income places or budget transparency websites are now quite trendy in development circles. One of the primary goals of these initiatives is to make “legible” what was previously inscrutable (e.g. the location of public health facilities or public spending on provincial education). To borrow from James Scott of Yale University, my worry is that “a thoroughly legible society eliminates local monopolies of information and creates a kind of national transparency through the uniformity of codes, identities, statistics, regulations and measures. At the same time, it is likely to create new positional advantages for those at the apex who have the knowledge and access to easily decipher” the transparent environment (Scott 1998).

These questions of differential power dynamics – and the way openness will be harnessed by different entities to their own interests – are often absent from the technically-driven conversations about the value of transparency. Furthermore, not all transparency is created equally: openness in government processes versus community mapping are substantially different concerns, but often get lumped together in the new push for open development.

While the paper didn’t include time to substantively address solutions, I argue that theories such as Peter Evans’s concept of deliberative development should be a strong component of any development initiative working on transparency and openness.

A version of the paper is available for download here.

Interested readers should also see the World Bank’s papers on the topic which also link technical and legal openness to political participation. 

Update: The folks at Crooked Timber organized a seminar on open data, and Tom Slee’s excellent opening post built on some of the arguments in this paper, spurring quite a comment thread.

Does Mobile Money Harm the Poor?

[The following piece originally appeared at Mobile Active]

The unprecedented diffusion of mobile connectivity around the globe has caused much excitement from development practitioners, especially those seeking to advance financial inclusion. And as with any excitement, there is bound to be detractors. Jamie M. Zimmerman and Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation have put a forceful stake down in that camp with regard to mobile money. They have sparked undoubtedly a useful debate but their cautionary piece on why mobile money “is hurting huge swaths of the developing world” ultimately missteps.

Zimmerman and Meinrath argue that despite having significant benefits to users, mobile money is out of reach for broad swaths of the world’s poor because (a) connectivity is not universal and (b) mobile money has “remarkably high fees”. Taking Kenya as one of the countries on the avant garde of mobile money availability and adoption, they fear that mobile money “may, in fact, be driving a new wealth divide… leaving [Kenya’s] poor in even more dire straits.”

However, their well-intentioned but dour speculation misses key features of the financial landscape in developing countries and misinterprets fundamental characteristics of mobile money.

There is a measure of truth to their argument. It is true that mobile connectivity is not universal.  The most recent data available (PDF) from the Kenyan regulator, for instance, puts mobile coverage at only 86% of the population, and this doesn’t account for the frequent complaints of “dead zones” in the country. Additionally, mobile phones are not ubiquitous and lack of device ownership is the largest reason for not adopting M-PESA.  However, as mobile phones are becoming cheaper all the time and given the widespread practice of sharing phones, access is less of an issue over time. And, yes, it is true that M-PESA is offered as a for-profit service, with users incurring fees.

But in rushing to defend the poor from sluggish regulators and extractive mobile operators, Zimmerman and Meinrath miss the big question: is mobile money better for the poor relative to the available alternatives?

In the half-dozen or so markets where it has reached scale, the answer is almost certainly yes. Mobile money has grown because it is by-and-large demand-driven, filling a role desired by citizens in countries as diverse as the Philippines, Pakistan and Kenya. And instead of “remarkably high fees”, mobile money services like M-PESA are profoundly cheaper than alternatives.

More than just a lack of money, poverty involves a lack of access to the instruments and means through which the poor could improve their lives. The real promise of M-PESA is not that it will “combat global poverty” or “save the poorest of the poor” (as strawmen headlines put it), but rather that it creates a generalized platform on which a wellspring of new start-ups, services and opportunities (see a recent survey of that proliferation in Kenya). The new mobile infrastructure is being used to deliver reliable, secure and efficient services – financial and otherwise – that were fundamentally out of reach for most Kenyans ten years ago. No one realistically believes mobile services are the solution, but it is clear that they will increasingly be used as a component of many solutions.

But what about the “poorest of the poor” that Zimmerman and Meinrath laudably emphasize? Is it true that M-PESA’s fees are “prohibitive to those living below the poverty line – currently about 50 percent of the Kenyan population”? Prima facie, of course not, since the service has been adopted by more than fifty percent of Kenyan households. Certainly, a proportion of Kenyans are unable to adopt M-PESA for the reasons suggested, and in a forthcoming piece I argue that we mustn’t lose sight of universal access and service goals. But non-adoption of M-PESA does not leave “a substantial portion of the nation’s poor in even more dire straits.”  Indeed, because you do not have to register and it is free to receive money, many rural Kenyans who make up its poorest citizens are actually able to benefit from it. Further without focusing on the systemic efficiency and productivity gains (PDF) that mobile money entails, critics miss the forest for the trees.

Of course we should “fight the tough regulatory battles necessary” to attain universal service, but Zimmerman and Meinrath do not suggest anything specific. In fact, their example country Kenya is widely considered to have one of the more enlightened and forward-thinking regulatory regimes. Innovative policy from the Central Bank and Communications Commission of Kenya are a big reason mobile money took off. Referring to Kenya specifically, two close observers of Africa’s ICT development – Professors Jenny Aker and Isaac Mbiti – note that “The right national policy can therefore benefit poor consumers.”

E.J. Hobsbawn once wrote that the poor work “the system to their minimum disadvantage.” Mobile money is helping them to do so. While it could be less proprietary, more accessible and, yes, cheaper, impatient ambition is more likely to neuter a beneficial service than lead to positive changes.