Can we counter the data counter-revolution? On power, privacy, and data governance

Written by Jonathan Glennie

We all know about the data revolution. If you work in international development, and particularly if you have been anywhere near the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) movement in the last few years, you can’t have missed it.

As TReNDS’ own report, Counting on the World argues, better data should help us monitor progress and make better policy, based on evidence. And as I have myself said in a previous post, data in the right hands can rebalance power and inspire people to effective activism. 

But there is another side to the data coin.

The push for more data rests on the assumption that better evidence will enhance the likelihood of sensible decisions being made. But data doesn’t happen in a political vacuum. The struggle for power and advantage continues just as it always has, and it is naïve to believe that the decision-makers who will use this massive expansion in available data are neutral or indeed benevolent. 

The data revolution could lead to a rebalancing of power if the amount of good-quality information and evidence available to marginalized communities increases relative to the information available to those that have historically done the marginalizing.

But what if the reverse happens?  What if SDG advocates and communities think they are becoming more powerful as they access more data, but are actually becoming less powerful, because their advocacy targets (governments and businesses) are accessing new and better data on a vastly greater scale?

Then we have, effectively, a counter-revolution.

As Tom Orrell, Director of DataReady Limited and a data pragmatist, put it to me recently, the data available to civil society and the SDG community are like “crumbs from the table” compared to the data currently being scanned by powerful governments and businesses.

It may be ever more accurate data that is the real danger of our age. In democratic countries, some concerns are framed around “privacy,” but in autocratic states, an even more worrying word may be appropriate: surveillance.  

Just a conspiracy theory? In fact, worrying examples already abound. 

Take the Chinese government’s plans to use big data to construct social incentives and penalties. According to Bloomberg, “Those with better so-called social credit will get ‘green channel’ benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.” It is quite possible to view this concept in. positive light, i.e. a government can prod its citizens into making what I would consider “positive” choices, like recycling and giving up smoking. Sadly, one can also imagine the potential persecutorial uses to which this kind of information could be put. (All of which raises far more existential questions: Who defines good or ill when acting on data science and data-driven insights?) Or consider SDG Target 16.9, on identity and birth registration. According to Privacy International, we should be concerned that the growing scope of identity data “can give governments the potential for unprecedented control and monitoring over populations,” especially when you factor in biometric technologies such as facial recognition.  

Another concern is the challenge of engaging private sector firms, with their profit-making inclinations while maintaining an approach based on human rights and doing no harm. Put bluntly, a human rights approach implies collecting as little data as possible and deleting it as soon as possible, while competitive business models often rely on the opposite.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has come under fire from several quarters for contracting with Palantir, a data mining and big data analytics firm that carries out defense and intelligence analytics for the U.S. Government. As part of the deal, Palantir will now have access to data collected by WFP from over 80 million food aid recipients, including, in some instances, biometric data. It is still unclear what has been done to ensure that Palantir doesn’t combine this data with other datasets from, for example, their defense contracts, seemingly in-line with their business model. The other troubling dimension of this is the scope for re-identification of individuals and the risk of breaches of the personal data of vulnerable communities and people. WFP has in fact been criticized for having lax and poor data management practices in the past.

Again, these are not new concerns; they have been expressed many times by whistle-blowers, journalists, and academics. The need to strike the balance between the right to privacy, the need for states to have some level of information about citizens, and the hope that companies operate to the benefit of society–these are all hot topics. My question is whether the focus on data in this SDG era shifts that balance at all. 

Tom is not sure. “My working hypothesis is that while there is money to be made, or power to be gained, from processing and selling data, that trend will continue. Initiatives like the [General Data Protection Regulation, or] GDPR do start to shift things, informing decisions about how and when personal data should be shared. But it is too early to tell whether the empowering dimension to the data revolution will outweigh the profit that can be made from it.”

So what can we do about this threat of a data counter-revolution? Fortunately, there are promising avenues to pursue.

For example, UN agencies have the potential to evolve and act as knowledge banks and brokers, helping countries to access new data, vet it, compare it to national statistics, and so on–a step above their usual behavior in this regard, i.e. collecting data. The UN itself is also realizing that it needs to have more robust data systems in place, with the Secretary-General himself detailing a vision for much greater transparency and accountability in the UN system. Beyond such institutional shifts, there are broader movements (like that for open data) and regional developments (like direct effects from the GDPR on the African continent) that emphasize data governance–perhaps the best means to combat the nefarious data counter-revolution.  

There is a huge opportunity to get this right, and the UN (including the various data entities such as the UN Statistics Commission) and SDG advocates need to be at the forefront of such efforts, leading the way not just in ending data poverty, but overturning data inequality.