Information communication technology (ICT) is increasingly used by development agencies and governments to help achieve development goals. Countless examples show the potential power ICTs have to improve the livelihoods of people and protect our planet.
But there are also dark sides of ICT—sometimes intentional, other times not—that warrant a cautious, if not skeptical, analysis of their impacts to development. Take, for example, the role Facebook had in spreading anti-Muslim hate speech, which is said to have accelerated ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar; or how digitalization has widened the gap between poor farmers and large agriculture companies; or how Brazil’s election may have been falsely swayed by disinformation sent through WhatsApp messages; or how digital rights appear to be shrinking for Palestinians.
And while social media platforms were once credited with providing a civil space for citizens to unite in protest against governments, they are now increasingly restricted and regulated by governments to protect state interests (Dencik & Leistert, 2015).
The nefarious side of ICT
Another example: The cutting-edge digital surveillance technology used by the Chinese government to collect data on a Muslim ethnic minority—Uighurs—in western China’s Xinjiang state. The Uighurs actually make up more than half of the state’s population. High-resolution security cameras, facial and voice recognition technology, and retina detection devices are placed on streets or at checkpoints around the region to track Uighurs’ movements.
The government is understood to be rapidly increasing spending on security services, hardware, software, DNA databases and platforms to link various streams of data together, which are allegedly used to create citizen profiles on Uighurs both inside and outside of China. In Xinjiang, Uighurs are stopped regularly to check mobile phones for evidence of prohibited things like social media apps, religious communication and political dissent, which are perceived by the government as threats to the party.
Some Uighur diaspora in exile are reportedly pressured to spy on fellow Uighurs away from home, and when exiled Uighurs have contact with family in China, it often brings heightened scrutiny, interrogation and reeducation to those family members.
Uighurs have disappeared by the thousands in the last year or so. They are sent to jails and ‘political education’ detention centers to punish people for suspected offenses ranging from using forbidden communication apps to visiting Muslim countries.
Periodically, Xinjiang has experienced attacks and other acts of unrest, including riots in 2009 that left almost 200 dead, by a small group of Uighur violent extremists. The Chinese government suspects connections to Islamic extremist groups in the Middle East and says security measures are necessary—though they do not acknowledge many of the reported tactics—to maintain peace in the region. The government also says they have done a lot of good for the historically underdeveloped region, including infrastructure projects, education programs and economic development initiatives.
China’s process of collecting social data on its citizens can be described as ‘data relations,’ which converts activities of daily life into a “data stream” (Couldry & Mejias, 2018). The overabundance of available data provides its captors with a constant flow of information on individuals’ behaviors and social interactions, which can be used, as evident in China and elsewhere, for intense social discrimination. Couldry & Mejias (2018) call this new wave of exploitation ‘data colonialism.’
Indeed ICTs could make it harder for China to control its citizens’ behaviors; as Johnson and Post (1996) observe, cyberspace allows users to circumvent laws that traditionally rely on territorial borders. Mechanisms like China’s surveillance program are the new frontier of behavior control in the digital era.
Once the infrastructure for censorship is established, it becomes quite easy for authorities to leverage the technology for other purposes (Deibert, 2009). The same argument can be extended to the digital surveillance program in China, which is alarming not only because Xinjiang is a suspected testing ground for future expansion to other parts of China, but it can also serve as an example for other countries to follow suit. Electronic communication has given governments and companies alike a wealth of capacity to monitor almost all components of citizens’ daily lives, including conversations and locations (Lyon, 2007). Information is constantly being gathered about everything (Braman, 2006).
Privacy, a human right
This matters for development for many reasons, starting with the right to privacy being fundamental to freedom of expression (UN General Assembly, 2013). Critical debate is a vitally important factor in societal strength, enabling people to express what they need for healthy and productive lives. If people can’t share information about the discrimination they suffer or the basic rights they lack—which pervasive surveillance efforts undermine (Dencik & Leistert, 2015)—they are not able to live and contribute to their societies fully.
ICT projects should be celebrated for their many benefits to development, but they should also be approached with caution. An unintended negative impact of a well-intended ICT intervention, such as digital infrastructure, could be its eventual use by governments and corporations to practice data colonialism, ultimately jeopardizing citizens’ human rights.