Digital surveillance and surveillance capitalism in the Caribbean
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Digital surveillance and surveillance capitalism in the Caribbean

Peter Richards

When he spoke at a Caribbean Telecommunication Union (CTU) event marking its 30th anniversary in April 2019, Grenada’s Prime Minister, Dr. Keith Mitchell, who has the lead responsibility for Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) within the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) quasi cabinet, was confident that digitalization was going to save the region millions of dollars.

Mitchell said, “In this technological age, there is absolutely no justification for replicating and duplicating efforts in each of our Caribbean islands and expending already scarce resources. If there is one single problem confronting the region, it is that instead of working more together on all issues, we are working in silos. We need to collaborate while building an independent culture for pursuing our own development. We must own the process.”

The   Eastern    Caribbean   Central   Bank (ECCB), which has seven full members, has already announced plans for a digital currency programme linking central banks globally. However, the ECCB has said that its “digital currency” would be different from the crypto currency – a digital asset designed to work as a medium of exchange that uses strong cryptography to secure financial transactions, control the creation of additional units and verify the transfer of assets.

ECCB Governor, Timothy Antoine, further explains that amid the global thrust towards digitization the idea of a “digital currency” is not “to alienate or exclude anyone” given that “some people [will] still want to continue to use hard physical cash”.

But in doing so, the ECCB has warned the people of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis and Montserrat that they would have to consider the high costs associated with continuing to use hard currencies, as well as debit and credit cards.

Cheques are also a popular form of payment, but the ECCB says “what we hope to see by 2025, [is a] 50 per cent reduction in physical cash and an 80 per cent reduction in cheques” and the proposed “digital currency” would provide the new “wallet” for fulfilling that expectation. “Those of us who are now paying our utility bills online do not want to go back to a time when we have to stand in line, unless we want to go to the line for social community engagement,” Antoine argues.

Digital promise

The digital revolution began with great promise. And while Caribbean countries may not have been among those early critics who had regarded the so-called Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) as “innovations that subscribers did not need”, they have come to understand and have sought to benefit from its error-free transmissions of information at far greater speeds than what existed with the ordinary telephone network.

ISDN, which provides the infrastructure to support a far wider range of services, such as video-conferencing and high-speed data transfer, is also improving intra-company communications with some large companies still ensuring that private networks of leased lines lock their most important sites. Today, ISDN allows users based at these remote sites to have the same facilities as those who work at head offices. The outcome is an enhanced level of communications across the entire company and such a practice exists within many Caribbeanbased firms, some of which are also multi-national with headquarters across the Atlantic.

With these developments, privacy has become a real concern. In a March 2017 paper, Professor Shawn Smallman, writing on “Digital Surveillance and Privacy”, recalled a recent discussion with his students at Portland State University in which he had asked if they were more concerned about surveillance by government or by corporations.

“Last year, my students were much more worried about how corporations tracked their activities. This year, however, many of my students say that they are not overly worried about both, but they are also ambivalent. What I realized after reading their posts was that I may have asked the wrong question. It’s not that students are worried about their online activities being tracked. Instead, they are much more concerned about the Internet of Things, and how a hacker might use the camera in their security system to observe them, or a device with a microphone to record their conversations,” he wrote.

Shoshana Zuboff, Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, also warns in her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” that the continuing advances of the digital revolution can be dazzling and that their lights, bells, and whistles “have made us blind and deaf to the ways high-tech giants exploit our personal data for their own ends”.

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, Zuboff, noted that in 2002, the first generation of e-commerce was preoccupied with tracking cookies and attracting eyeballs for advertising but “as the years rolled on, I understood that this was actually a new variant of capitalism that was taking hold of the digital milieu.

“The opportunities to align supply and demand around the needs of individuals were overtaken by a new economic logic that offered a fast track to monetization,” she said, defining surveillance capitalism as the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.

“These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioural futures markets – business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later. It was Google that first learned how to capture surplus behavioural data, more than what they needed for services, and used it to compute prediction products that they could sell to their business customers, in this case advertisers,” she argued.

Consumer surveillance is most commonly used for targeted marketing and advertising. Marketers combine demographic information with data about people’s online activities: searches, websites visited, posts and conversations on social media etc. to focus marketing where it is most likely to meet with success. In a more direct monetization, many companies also sell customer data gathered through various surveillance channels to partners and other third parties.

Earlier in 2019, news broke of a record-breaking US$5 billion fine for various privacy violations imposed by the United States-based Fair Trade Commission on Facebook, another social media platform used by billions globally. The fine, though the biggest in the FTC’s history, represented a mere month of Facebook’s revenue.

Data protection

At home in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago emerged as one of the regional countries embroiled in the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data scandal in early 2018 when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, the British political consulting firm, had harvested the personal data of Trinidadian voters on Facebook profiles without their (voters) consent and used it for political advertising purposes.

In March 2018, the Trinidad and Tobago government said evidence before the United Kingdom House of Commons Committee detailed the project carried out by AIQ as the affiliate company of Cambridge Analytica. Attorney General, Faris Al Rawi, said that the whistleblower admitted in his testimony that he understood that the data acquisition in Trinidad and Tobago was and is illegal and that there was a “total disregard for the law”.

With these concerns in mind, a number of Caribbean governments have piloted various forms of legislation, including data protection and cybercrime bills, while rubbishing suggestions that free expression would be stifled.

The government in Trinidad and Tobago has itself announced its intention to re-introduce the Cybercrime Bill 2015, immediately prompting concerns by the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) about the proposed hefty fines and jail terms for breaches under the draft legislation. In fact, MATT says it remains deeply troubled that the cybercrime bill has retained its potential to criminalize professional journalists working in the public interest:

“While MATT follows the argument that the redrafted Clause 8 of the Cybercrime Bill [2015] introduces layers of proof – intentionally, without lawful excuse, justification – to be satisfied by a complainant in order to prove that an offence has been committed, we consider these to be low bars to scale and note also that these layers are to be satisfied in the Court. In other words, these ‘protections’ take effect after legal action has been taken and the matters brought before a Court.”

Over in Guyana concerns also abound after President David Granger assented in August 2018 to that country’s contentious cybercrime bill. Under the legislation, it is an offence to intentionally publish, transmit or circulate “by use of a computer system, statements or words, either spoken or written text, video, image, sign, visible representation that-encourages, incites, induces, aids, abets, counsels any person to commit, participate in the commission of, or to conspire with another person to commit any criminal offence against the President or any member of the government.”

However, the government agreed to an amendment based on the concerns raised by the Paris-based international non-governmental organization, Reporters Without Borders (RFB) that one of the clauses in the legislation could be used to muzzle whistleblowers as well as journalists and media from publishing reports based on information from a confidential source.

“The amendment has resulted in the removal of the provision that may pose an obstacle to the freedom of the press; that is, the criminal aspect of receiving the electronic data. The type of conduct being criminalized has now been revised and is more specific. The types of electronic data to which this clause refers to have also been defined to include commercially sensitive data, a trade secret or data which relates to national security,” Attorney General Basil Williams said.

There is no such amendment in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In fact, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves has stoutly defended the 2016 Cybercrime Bill saying it was a “regional effort with assistance from consultancies outside of the region” and that discussions had also taken place with local stakeholders.

In a joint statement, 25 organizations, including the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI), noted that “several provisions of this bill pose a serious threat to freedom of the press, the free flow of online information, and public debate”.

Governance concerns in Jamaica

The same situation is unfolding in Jamaica where the Data Protection Act has been tabled with a view to strengthening citizens’ ability to control the use of their data by third parties. The Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) has also expressed concern about the proposed National Identification and Registration Act will hinder freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Of specific concern is that under the proposed legislation, agents of the state will be able to take decisions that negatively affect the work of journalists who are already governed by defamation laws.

RFB has also commented on the Jamaica situation, saying the proposed legislation “does not adequately distinguish gathering ‘data’ for journalistic activities from gathering data for regular commercial purposes”.

The matter has also captured the attention of British-born blogger and social media activist, Emma Lewis, who has been living in Jamaica for nearly 30 years. She notes that several governance concerns are being aired via traditional and social media regarding the legislation. She said early alarm bells sounded with regard to the role of the all-powerful information commissioner who would monitor compliance with the Act, advise the minister and serve as the arbitrator in disputes.

“The commissioner would also appoint an ‘independent’ data protection officer. Media stakeholders were generally uncomfortable with the scope of the commissioner’s reach, as well as the role of the technology minister when it comes to freedom of the press,” she wrote in the Netherlands-based Global Voices in June 2018.

Fast forward to May 2019 as Jamaica’s Technology Minister, Fayval Williams, defended the proposed legislation, telling a Global Digital Marketing Summit that stronger statutes were urgently needed to protect the country as the use of technology increases. She said that with more businesses using technology to achieve growth and development, the Data Protection Bill was essential to ensuring that the digital space was not being utilized in a nefarious way.

Williams argued that while technology has improved the ease of doing business on the island, it has made Jamaicans vulnerable to cyber threats, which necessitated an Information and Communications Technology Act to provide the ICT sector with an a legislative and regulatory framework to address emerging issues around competitiveness and consumer protection.

In the meantime, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), as part of the full package of e-government laws, is considering a Data Protection Bill aimed at ensuring that personal information in the custody or control of an organization, whether public or private, shall not be disclosed, processed or used other than the purpose for which it was collected, except with the consent of the individual and where exemptions are clearly defined.

“Just as electronic transactions has been taking place for several years in [member states] and, without the legal frameworks setting out default provisions and protections, so too large amounts of personal data is being collected, by the private sector and government.

“The practice of holding or using personal data is certainly not new, but when this is combined with current technology, including electronic and online transactions, it has become very easy to collect and store vast amounts of personal information. Government is undoubtedly the largest custodian of personal information. The private sector, including financial and medical institutions, is also custodian of a large amount of personal information,” the OECS noted.

For its part, the ACM has noted “with concern” continuing efforts by some countries to address legitimate issues associated with harmful online content through legislation that, in its view, “tramples on important principles associated with freedom of expression and freedom of the press”.

“There has obviously been much concern about the new challenges offered by online communication in the Caribbean and, indeed, much undue haste in addressing them. In some instances (defamation for example), offences are already covered under existing legislation and the opportunity now appears to be offered to impose greater stringency to its application,” the regional media grouping said.

While not disputing the need for greater levels of accountability and care on the part of communicators using social media in particular, practitioners are agreed that draconian and disproportionately punitive measures are likely to cause more harm than good.


Peter Richards is a St. Lucian-born journalist. He is a graduate of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the City University in London, graduating from the latter with a Master’s Degree in Communication Policy Studies.


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