Technological fix or surveillance scam?
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Technological fix or surveillance scam?

An interesting article has appeared on the web site of ifex, the global network defending freedom of expression.

As with everything these days there is a new technological fix for poverty: biometric identification. A scheme known as Aadhaar aims to capture fingerprints, photographs, and iris scans of 1.2 billion residents in India. The hypothesis is that a national identification programme will contribute to empowering the poor and underprivileged residents.

Aadhaar is just one example of the development sector’s growing fascination with technologies for registering, identifying, and monitoring citizens – systems that would be controversial if not outright rejected in the West because of the threat they pose to civil liberties.

The twin goals of development and security are being used to justify a bewildering array of initiatives, including British-funded biometric voting technology in Sierra Leone, U.N. surveillance drones in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and biometric border controls in Ghana supported by the World Bank. 

This vigorous adoption of technologies for collecting, processing, tracking, profiling, and managing personal data – in short, surveillance technologies – runs the risk of placing immense power in the hands of government authorities, often in places where democratic safeguards and civil society watchdogs are limited.

As Robin Tudge writes in the Introduction to The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance (New Internationalist, 2010), surveillance has become an end in itself. “The logarithms and artificial intelligence systems of computerzied databses have gone from sifting the data so as to enable an outcome, to being trusted to direct that outcome. Surveilance is too often  from being an accounting tool to one that governments and corporations will use to direct and pre-empt.”

“Privacy for the other five million” – the article republished by ifex from Slate (posted 17 May 2013) – points to information gathered in aid programs being of use to intelligence agencies. “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Mazzetti recently revealed that the Pentagon funded a food aid program in Somalia for the express purpose of gathering details on the local population. Even legitimate aid programs now maintain massive databases of personal information, from household names and locations to biometric information.”

The author points out that “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.” There is no mention of the equivalent responsibility of independent journalism to draw attention to such developments and the way they are being used or misused.

A further example comes from Kenya, whose human rights record is under scrutiny. In 2012 Human Rights Watch called on the country’s administration to ensure that abusive security forces are held to account, protect independent voices, accelerate key police and land reforms, and to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Like many low-income countries, Kenya has been unable to implement country-wide birth registrations, making public health work difficult and slowing the provision of educational and other services to vulnerable populations. To address this situation, Kenya has sought to enroll all adults in a biometric national identification scheme that aims to interoperate with various other databases, including the tax authority, financial institutions, and social security programs.

 As “Privacy for the other five million” reports, “According to the director of this Integrated Population Registration System, George Anyango, the government now has ‘the 360 degree view of any citizen above the age of 18 years.’ The Orwellian language is particularly worrisome given Kenya’s lack of data protection requirements and history of political factionalism, including the ethnic violence in the aftermath of the 2007 election that resulted in the death of more than 1,000 Kenyans.”

Privacy International, whose mission is “is to defend the right to privacy across the world, and to fight surveillance and other intrusions into private life by governments and corporations”, has been investigating the international trade in surveillance technologies. In 2011 it uncovered evidence of dozens of Western companies selling dangerous equipment and software to countries like Iran, Syria and Libya, and began a campaign to put a stop to such unethical practices.

All technology has its postivie and negative aspects. There is a fine but clear line between what strengthens rather than undermines the right to privacy – which falls under the umbrella of communication rights. Personal information and communication must be safeguarded, regardless of nationality, religion, personal or economic status, and the issues of state and global security must not be allowed to cloud the issue.

Source: ifex. The article originally appeared on SlateIt was written by Kevin Donovan, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, and Carly Nyst, Head of International Advocacy at Privacy International.

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