Archive for the Category Technology Policy


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.

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.