Tag Archives surveillance

Perpetuating data colonialism through digital humanitarian technologies by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

In recent years, humanitarian spaces have become technologized as aid agencies have turned to digital technologies to improve aid allocation. Wearables and other forms of digital humanitarian artifacts can foster improved surveillance of aid beneficiaries, their needs, and aid distribution, but raise serious ethical concerns. Through tracking devices, aid beneficiaries risk becoming the producers of commercial data extracted from emergency settings under the pretext of a reciprocal ‘gifting’ relationship between benefactor and beneficiary, writes Kristin Bergtora Sandvik.

Operating at the interface of bio and sensor technology, wearables such as activity trackers and smartwatches facilitate the measurement, selection, screening, legibility, calculability and visibility of data associated with human bodies. Tracking operates through and upon multiple layers: general biodata, such as height, weight, gender, age and race; bodily fluids, including blood, sweat, sperm and tears; and the capture of individual characteristics, including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice and face recognition. These are conceptualized as smart devices that can be placed on or inside human bodies for many purposes, including tracking and improving health, safety, and nutrition.

Wearables for tracking and protecting health, safety and nutrition offer interesting possibilities for the humanitarian aid sector due to their ability to monitor the needs and movements of aid beneficiaries that can improve the efficiency and timeliness of aid allocation. By tracking aid beneficiaries, aid agencies are able to deliver or monitor reproductive health services, strengthen security and accountability through more efficient registration of wearers, or ensure adequate nutrition to those who need it.

However, while the sociological literature on tracking devices focusing on individual self-tracing and consumer behaviour is large and growing, little critical scholarly attention has been paid to the use of tracking devices in the Global South, and none at all to their use in the humanitarian context. The deployment of wearables in emergencies entails deployment in contexts where there are deep, extra-democratic power differences between beneficiaries and structurally unaccountable humanitarian actors, donors and private sector actors—something that requires urgent attention.

Worryingly, increased surveillance of human bodies through human wearables and other digital humanitarian artifacts points to the commodification of the human body. While digital humanitarian goods such as human wearables are hailed by private sector actors and humanitarians as ‘game changers’, their use is not only leading to improved aid allocation. The game is changing in a different way: beneficiaries wearing tracking devices are becoming data producers.

The postcolonial past still shapes and limits what a wearable can be and do. The humanitarian sector has long used wristbands to control and care for beneficiaries. In the past, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has tried to avoid multiple registrations by using stamps, wristbands, photographs, fingerprints, or biometrics. The historical use of wristbands raises questions about potentially repressive aspects of contemporary humanitarian use of wearables. According to the UNHCR, wristbands identify each individual claiming to be a refugee, limit the recycling of the refugee population, serve as distribution ‘cards’, and give everyone better access to food and other assistance. At the same time, wristbands are also commonly used in extreme registration contexts, such as those involving enclosure systems—the herding of people into a confined space for registration. These types of uses indicate that complicated historical baggage calls into question the idea of humanitarian wearables as a uniquely benevolent technology.

Moreover, wearables are part of a process of miniaturization of the communicative architecture of aid:  As observed by Collier et al. (2017), the grand aid schemes of yesterday are today found as gadgets. Small technologies of government now permeate the field of international aid.  Wearables are part of a general trend in aid, whereby “tremendous intellectual and moral energy, as well as the financial and organizational resources, is being devoted to inventing and disseminating … micro-endeavors”. However, the literature on humanitarian goods has so far given little attention to how the incorporation of international aid into the global data economy, dominated by tech giants in the global East and the Global North, changes this equation. No attention has been paid so far to the ‘gift’ element of data production and its implications for how we think about the nature of aid.

Data extraction through aid: beneficiaries as data producers

In The Gift, Marel Mauss explores how reciprocal exchanges of objects between groups—gifting—build relationships between humans. The obligation is articulated as a moral contract to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. A significant body of literature has explored aid as ‘gift exchanges’, focusing on aid as a form of symbolic violence or a source of asymmetric power differences in which gifting is seemingly based on reciprocal, equal relationships, but in reality is not (here, here, here and here).

In the humanitarian aid sector, gifting, at least by donors and humanitarian actors, is presented as a one-directional activity premised on notions of charity and financial generosity. With the rise of wearables, this relationship is turned on its head if we recognize the central premise of the global data economy: that beneficiary data is the product, not the tracking device, and that human bodies become data-producing units—aid beneficiaries become data subjects.

The prevailing attitude among proponents of digital humanitarian technologies seem to be that this is neither an extractive relationship nor an inverted one: beneficiary data logically constitute a reciprocal gesture in return for humanitarian aid, ‘the original gift’. But data of commercial value produced through the bodies of aid beneficiaries is not a gift, and will likely not be seen as such. However, given the continuing failure to characterize data transfer properly, it is useful to hold on to the gift concept as an analytical device for developing critiques of digital humanitarian goods in the age of data colonialism. This entails considering what kind of gifts data represent, the relationships ‘data gifts’ emanate from and create, and the costs and types of revenue generated, how and for whom.

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “Wearables for something good: aid, dataveillance and the production of children’s digital bodies.” Information, Communication & Society (2020): 1-16. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369118X.2020.1753797
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “Digital Dead Body Management (DDBM): Time to Think it Through.” Journal of Human Rights Practice (2020). https://academic.oup.com/jhrp/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jhuman/huaa002/5822573
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “Making wearables in aid: Digital bodies, data and gifts.” Journal of Humanitarian Affairs 1.3 (2019): 33-41. https://www.manchesteropenhive.com/view/journals/jha/1/3/article-p33.xml

Kristin SandvikKristin Bergtora Sandvik, SJD Harvard Law School, is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo.  Sandvik teaches robot regulations, legal technology and AI, legal sociology and ethics. Her widely published socio-legal research focuses on criminalization, technology and the struggle for accountability in humanitarian action. Most recently, she has published on humanitarian wearables and digital dead body management.



Title Image Credit: World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr

COVID-19 | Increased surveillance during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the emergence of a new architecture of global power by Jacqueline Gaybor and Henry Chavez

Central to efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has been the monitoring and prevention of the spread of the virus. To do so, governments need to keep discipline amongst their populations and limit their movements. While new big data, artificial intelligence technologies and control mechanisms are being implemented, we are witnessing the emergence of a new global structure of power built with our digital traces. As the intertwined history of epidemics and states shows, the utility of these new trends and devices should not be solely evaluated in terms of their effectiveness in controlling the spread of the virus, but also in terms of their consequences for the global structure of power and the future functioning of states.

History is replete with deadly contagion episodes that have decimated populations. Viruses, these little “insignificant” beings  (Žižek 2020), have created the conditions for the emergence of several devices and institutions that have become the very bases of modern nation states. Looking back, censuses, quarantines, hospitals, biometric registers and even punishment for disobedience were first conceived to be necessary to shorten the chains of infections and control the spread of diseases.

But once the crises were over, these devices were kept and instrumentalized by governments to better control their populations and territories and exercise their sovereignty. They became what Foucault called a disciplinary model of power (Foucault 1975). This model, based on a panoptical architecture (Bentham 1995) of societies and institutions, has been working, improving and spreading around the world since the 19th Century. In this panoptical model, found for instance in prisons, hospitals, or schools, a watchman position creates a feeling of constant surveillance among the population, which triggers them to ‘behave themselves’ (assert self-discipline).


  1. Marseille in quarantine. A naval officer with his family
  2. The man who brought the plague to Milan
Source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF (National Library of France)

The unprecedented scale and speed of responses to the COVID-19 crisis we face have unveiled a process of profound transformation in the architecture of power around the world. The panoptical disciplinary model from the 19th and 20th centuries seems insufficient to retain order in an increasingly interconnected and complex global system. The global lockdown we are part of is a step backward that reveals the weakening of the disciplinary model that supports modern nation states. At the same time, it reveals the emergence of new trends and devices with an unprecedented capacity to reshape, in a short period of time, human practices, imaginaries, and policies around the world. A huge transformation is taking place without a prior careful analysis, mostly based on new forms of population control and surveillance.

Mass harvesting of biometric data

An important distinction from other historical health crises is the largely unquestioned mass harvesting of biometric data—what Yuval Noah Harari (2020) has called a transition from ‘over-the-skin’ to ‘under-the-skin’ surveillance. Through this transition, largely sustained by contactless technologies, such as cameras measuring body temperature in airports, or at the entrance of Buddhist temple (as shown in the picture below), we have come to normalize images of temperature, breath, and heartrate screenings. But also, any actions that bear a resemblance to coughing, sneezing or blowing our noses can be collected and reported. This data is being used to identify possibly infected persons and control their mobility.


Buddha tooth relic temple, Singapore. 09 March 2020. Credits: Peter van Leeuwen.

The public seems to be rapidly accepting the risks involved with providing biometric data for prevention purposes, but caution is needed: While these devices may help solve urgent public health concerns, we do not know how they will be used afterwards.

Using apps to ‘manage the spread of the virus’

The emergence of mobile ‘coronavirus apps’ is another phenomenon that has become an integral part of collecting biometric data and limiting citizens’ freedom of movement during this pandemic. The Alipay HealthCode app was developed for the Chinese government to assign users three colour codes based on their health status and travel history, and a QR code that can be scanned at any time by law enforcement authorities. The app has specificities according to each city, but the three color codes[1] are a general commonality. The app relies on self-reporting by the user integrated with medical information provided by the government[2]. Yet, the app does not make clear to users what data is being stored, who can make use of it, and how it is used.

The global chaos has pushed different governments around the world to adopt approaches that have been conceived and designed under authoritarian regimes. For example, Andrus Ansip, Vice President of the European Commission, promoted Singapore’s TraceTogether Bluetooth-operating app as a key component for preventing COVID-19 spread in the EU. Countries like the Netherlands are looking at apps to trace the movements of citizens, but are facing resistance in light of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that prioritizes anonymization and privacy. Despite a strong common legal framework, we see the EU struggling to choose between ‘giving in’ and disregarding the complexities that the technological solutions impose on privacy rights in order to contain the spread of the virus, or protecting the rights of their citizens to privacy and the future of their democracies.

As the intertwined history of epidemics and states shows, the relevance of these new trends and devices should also be evaluated regarding their future consequences in the structure of power and the functioning of the states. Which of the array of devices, technologies, and policies imposed to us during this crisis will governments or corporations keep in the aftermath to exercise control over their citizens and reinforce their power? The reality in the Global South is even more complicated, considering their limited technical capacities and lack of privacy regulations.

 A new architectural power design

The current global quarantine reveals a weakened of the panoptical model, a lack of capacity of the states to keep discipline and order among their populations. However, the emergence of new trends and devices suggest that a new architectural power design is in the making: an omniopticon model. This model offers the same disciplinary advantages of the Bentham’s design, yet it is designed in a virtual space. In this model everybody can be seen, heard, localized, measured and predicted without the necessity of towers, walls, windows, or watchdogs. As in the panoptical model, it doesn’t matter who exercises power, or even if there is someone actually watching: the discipline is internalized by fear.

However, two differences can be identified. First, this new model is not limited to the actual existence of institutions or physical spaces that discipline individuals. It is diluted around us; we contribute to it every day through our digital traces, our physical movements, eye blinks, and heartbeats. It can be anywhere in the world at any time and therefore it cannot be contained or driven by limited entities as the modern states. We are facing the emergence of a global structure of power with no modern political entity capable of controlling it.

Secondly, the Bentham’s ideal model guaranteed that the watchman position is held by any individual and therefore anyone outside the panopticon could supervise the watchman. A form of accountability to prevent a tyranny. In the omniopticon, the feature of accountability is replaced by automation led by big data and artificial intelligence technologies. No human can hold the position of the watcher, neither can they supervise something they don’t understand. As in the quarantines of the 17th century, this new disciplinary model that is taking over will lock all of us (the watchdogs included) in our cells, leave the keys outside the doors, and will leave no-one to reopen them afterwards.

[1] Green allows individuals to travel relatively freely, yellow confines individuals to their homes for isolation, while red indicates individuals with a confirmed COVID-19 case who should be in quarantine.
[2] This comprises medical records, travel history records, and information regarding being in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
Bentham, Jeremy. 1995. Jeremy Bentham: The Panopticon Writings. Edited by Miran Bozovic. London: Verso.
Foucault, Michel. 1975. Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison. Paris: Gallimard.
Harari, Yuval Noah. 2020. “Yuval Noah Harari: The World after Coronavirus.” Financial Times, March 20, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75.
Žižek, Slavoj. 2020. “Slavoj Žižek ‘el Coronavirus es un golpe a lo Kill Bill al sistema capitalista.’” Esferapública (blog). March 18, 2020. http://esferapublica.org/nfblog/slavoj-zizek-el-coronavirus-es-un-golpe-a-lo-kill-bill-al-sistema-capitalista/.
Title Image: The new medusa, “it’s a good thing i can’t see myself”. Credits: Richard Scott

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


About the authors:

Jacqueline Gaybor is a Research Associate at the International Institute of Social Studies/Erasmus University Rotterdam, in The Netherlands. She holds a Ph.D. in development studies and has an interdisciplinary background in law, gender, social studies of science and technology, and sustainable development. She is also a lecturer at Erasmus University College.

Henry Chavez is a Research Associate at the Science, Technology and Society Lab (CTS-Lab) FLACSO, in Ecuador. He holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France. He has an interdisciplinary background in social sciences, economics, and politics; and is a specialist in social studies of science, technology and innovation; anthropology of global systems; public policy design and evaluation.

Legal mobilisation in the court of public opinion by Lotte Houwing and Jeff Handmaker

The idea of a dystopian government that is all-powerful, unrestrained and especially all-seeing is centuries-old. Machiavelli, Orwell and many others have pondered the opportunities and challenges of allowing a government, particularly an authoritarian one, to have access to a system of surveillance that provides every detail of people’s lives. But few could have imagined the implications of modern technologies, such as DNA testing and facial recognition software. What can be done by way of legal mobilisation, beyond the courtroom, to restrain the government when threats to human rights by surveillance agencies are regarded as unacceptable?

The societal debate in The Netherlands regarding privacy and surveillance has been accelerated by the process of reform of the Dutch Intelligence and Security Services Act (in Dutch, the WIV). The Bill was met by an unprecedented level of reaction from the public in a consultation round that took place over the Internet (reference in Dutch). Shortly thereafter, five students from the city of Amsterdam took the initiative to petition for a referendum on the Bill, which was accompanied by a public campaign wherein the students succeeded in collecting even 344,126 more than the required 40,000 signatures. After the students succeeded, several organisations joined in campaigning, highlighting a variety of human rights concerns. Subsequently, the Public Interest Litigation Project (PILP) announced that it would explore the possibilities to start strategic litigation concerning a number of human rights violations that they alleged would be a direct consequence of proposed amendments to the Act.

The outcome of the referendum confirmed that the majority of Dutch citizens were against the Act as it was drafted by the government. This was a huge victory for the students, organisations and other privacy advocates. In response, the government formulated a proposal to make certain changes to the Act. Unfortunately, these changes were not much more than cosmetic. However, since the proposal entails a new legislative process, there is a fresh opportunity to lobby Parliament to introduce more far-reaching amendments.

These forms of legal mobilisation—petitioning for a national referendum, law-based campaigns, (the threat of) strategic litigation—and now a renewed opportunity to lobby Parliament on the revised Bill, reveal the power of public pressure to restrain government over-reach and leverage possibilities for rights-based advocacy and reform.

Where does it hurt?

One of the guiding questions of the PILP in assessing the challenges and potential for launching strategic litigation is: “where does it hurt”? The general problem of the Act is that it contains several capabilities that allow for data collection of people that are not targets of the intelligence and security services. Bulk interception, for example, entails the automatic collection of incredibly large amounts of data before the data even gets analysed by anyone.

The problem with this capability is that the (communications) data of anyone can be gathered, without having taken into account whether individuals form any risk at all from a national security standpoint. It is this specific capability that led to the name “sleepwet”, a portmanteau word of the Dutch word for dragnet (“sleepnet”) and law (“wet”). Besides bulk interception, the Act includes other capabilities with untargeted effects: the capability to hack third parties; to gain real time access to databases; to acquire bulk (personal) datasets; and to exchange (unevaluated) data with foreign intelligence agencies.

Apart from the direct consequences of exercising these capabilities to obtain and share large amounts of data of innocent people, there is the chilling effect. This effect refers to the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of certain fundamental rights caused by surveillance measures. For example, in an age of social media, most people recognise the situation of typing something, and then removing the social media post before sending it, because they do not have control over who will read it. Sometimes, such restraint can be a good thing. However, it is harmful for a democracy when political dissidents or whistleblowers begin censuring themselves and are discouraged from making political statements or revealing something bad that is happening.

A broader campaign on privacy

The controversial law reform process of the Act fired up a broader public debate, and, especially in the run up to the referendum, led to accompanying campaigns on privacy in The Netherlands. The most common reaction has been: “but I do not have anything to hide”. However, the campaign waged against specific parts of the Act succeeded in planting seeds of doubt and criticism against this popular, though indifferent attitude. Also, it was the first time that the secrecy of the Dutch surveillance regime was brought into question.

Beyond the Netherlands, the debate has international ramifications. The Netherlands is not the only country that is in the midst of an overarching law reform regarding its intelligence and security services. France, Germany, the U.K. and Finland, among others, are in the midst of comparable processes. The debate in the Netherlands is of international relevance because the Dutch law reform fits in an international trend wherein untargeted surveillance measures are introduced, Internet service providers are more involved in the application of the capabilities, and the focus shifts from content to metadata. Nevertheless, there is a sufficient extent of transparency and free speech in The Netherlands to have an open debate—circumstances which enable legal mobilisation to play a crucial role in bringing issues to the public’s attention, i.e. beyond the courtroom. The broader debate and campaign over privacy is therefore still highly valid.

 What is the role for strategic litigation?

The PILP coalition, which has been discussed in an earlier blogpost, focuses on strategic litigation for human rights. Strategic litigation, a specific form of legal mobilisation, involves the strategic use of legal procedures to bring about certain social, political or legal changes. Strategic litigation often accompanies campaigns or other means to amplify the voice of people and/or organisations fighting for this change.

 What is PILP doing in this specific case?

Regarding the Intelligence and Security Services Act of 2017, PILP is coordinating the legal procedures of a broad coalition of lawyers, journalists, NGOs, and IT/tech companies. This coalition is legally represented by the renowned law firm Boekx Advocaten. Within this file, two separate procedures are underway. First, PILP petitioned for an urgent procedure to force the postponement of the entry into force of the Act until the proposed changes had been passed by the Dutch Parliament. Unfortunately, the judge declined to answer this claim.

Secondly, the coalition is assessing the possibility of starting strategic litigation to challenge the untargeted effects of aforementioned capabilities provided for in the Act itself against the framework of the European human rights treaties. This procedure will be conducted if the changes made by parliament will be insufficient to address the fundamental human rights problems of the Act.

Given the unpredictability of the judicial system, it is difficult to predict the outcome of the lawsuit. However, it is very clear that the other forms of legal mobilisation—a law-based referendum and campaign—have not only underscored the value of taking matters to the formal courts. They have been doing well in their own right; restraining government through the Court of Public Opinion.

Picture credit: Magic Madzik

Lotte-zwart-wit-1-e1493911446330About the authors: 

JeffHandmakerISS_smallLotte Houwing is File Coordinator at the PILP concerning the WIV. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the organisation.

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.