The key objective of the research project is to shed light on the practice of using VPN as a data anonymization tool in Eastern Africa, by both individual users and for non-profit organizations (NPO).
By Vasilis Ververis, DATACTIVE
Magma aims to build a scalable, reproducible, standard methodology on measuring, documenting and circumventing internet censorship, information controls, internet blackouts and surveillance in a way that will be streamlined and used in practice by researchers, front-line activists, field-workers, human rights defenders, organizations and journalists.
In recent years, a number of research fellows, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers as well as a larger research community, have been working in high-risk contexts, which creates the need to consider their qualitative and quantitative research data as highly sensitive. Albeit their competitiveness and high qualification in their respective areas (social and political science, usability, law, political economy analysis), they can rarely claim to have a specific expertise or extensive experience when it comes to networks services and systems, telecommunication infrastructure, applied data analysis of network measurements, internet censorship, surveillance and information controls.
Ideally, researchers working with various network measurement tools and frameworks such as the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), should have qualified technical help and assistance, thus enabling them to develop appropriate testing methodologies, suiting exactly their research environment and needs.
Magma aims to build a research framework for people working on information controls and network measurements, facilitating their working process in numerous ways. As such, this framework will enable them to properly structure an activity plan, make informed choices regarding the required tools (including ethical and security aspects) and analyze the data produced by such tools.
Through Magma, we wish to provide our expertise and experience in network measurements, internet censorship research, assessment of ISP network, surveillance probing and data analysis in order to:
- Asses the risks by providing, implementing and maintaining technologies demanded by researchers on front-lines and areas where the need of operational security, anti-surveillance and censorship circumvention is of paramount importance.
- Provide tailored technical assistance, developing at the same time appropriate testing methodology for network measurements, evaluation and analysis of data and reports that correspond to the respective research questions.
- On a long-term basis, build a scalable and reproducible methodology for collecting, evaluating and analyzing data and reports’ self-defense for front-line researchers, front-line activists, field-workers, human rights defenders, organizations and journalists, by keeping exact documentation.
Below, we list some examples of potential future research around internet censorship, information controls and surveillance, mainly based on conducting networks measurements and analyzing its results:
A study on Tor network and media websites blockages, network bandwidth throttling and malicious network packet injections that contained malware and advertising content.
A study to determine how WhatsApp has been blocked after a judge’s court order all over the country of Brazil.
An extensive large scale research analyzing the policies and techniques used to block content deemed illegal by a state identifying transparency problems, collateral damage and the implications of over or under blocking.
A study on a non-malicious technical issue that leads to the interference and non-accessibility of a regional news media outlet throughout several different networks and countries.
To this respect, we would like to hear from all of you who are interested in researching information controls and internet censorship, and are intrigued to better understand how to work with network measurements and analyze data from various data sources and OONI reports.
We wanted to keep this post as concrete and terse as possible to encourage both technical and non-technical entities and individuals to get in touch with us, even if they are currently engaged in an undergoing project. The results of this collaboration will help form a complete guideline handbook expressed by the needs of the communities that work, or conduct research, in this field.
Please use any of these communications channels to get in touch with us.
Vasilis Ververis is a research associate with DATACTIVE and a practitioner of the principles ~ undo / rebuild ~ the current centralization model of the internet. Their research deals with internet censorship and investigation of collateral damage via information controls and surveillance. Some recent affiliations: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany; Universidade Estadual do Piaui, Brazil; University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal.
This post is co-published with the Magma Project
By Anna Berti Suman – Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (TILT)
During the Workshop ‘Big Data from the South: Towards a Research Agenda’, we discussed how the ‘South’ is much more than a geographical connotation. The South exists every time a person is discriminated, basic services are denied, surveillance is secretly performed at the expenses of those at the margins, land, but also data, are grabbed for the sake of profit, people are forced to daily live with environmental contamination, and so on. In this sense, maybe the South is not geographical at all, if we think that all these situations can well occur in the North as in the South of the world. This contribution tells a story ‘from the South’: the South of Italy (yet a country generally considered as part of ‘the North’), and a situation embedding the South through denial of rights and resource appropriation. But it also tells a story of hope, of civic resistance that can make a change, speaking to individuals, collectives, and even to institutions, with a tireless critique of the status-quo.
The case is that of ‘AnalyzeBasilicata’ (in Italian ‘Analizziamo la Basilicata’), founded in 2015 by the Italian association ‘COVA Contro’ and aimed at tackling the environmental mismanagements in a Southern Italian region, Basilicata, known for having a 40% of the population at risk of poverty. The region is also sadly known as “the Italian Texas” for the intense oil exploitation and its incidence on local residents. The ‘AnalyzeBasilicata’ initiative started as a campaign and quickly obtained a vast social uptake, manifested in the generous financial support from concerned citizens. Through crowdfunding, AnalyzeBasilicata managed to buy the necessary instruments to collect sample in numerous areas of the region and run chemical tests at the premises of Accredia, the Italian single body for scientific accreditation. The results of the test fuelled investigations that were subsequently published on the online magazine Basilicata24. The initiative currently strives to make publicly accessible the data from the measurements on its website as well as the sources of funding to support such measurements. In addition, the organization has barely any organizational structure, devoting all the resources obtained from crowd-funding to the measurements.
The collective’s workflow is structured as follow: when the AnalyzeBasilicata team identify an environmental problem, they run a cross-check or alterative measuring on the interested area; if they find a discrepancy between the official data and their measurements, they either first publish the news on their blog and then file a formal notification to the competent environmental agency or to the public prosecutor office, or, in alternative, they first notify the problem to the relevant institutions and then reach the public. The choice of one or the other strategy depends on the matter at issue, its sensitivity and public concern. In general, the response from the concerned citizens is higher than the interest and follow-up from the responsible institutions . The collective works either spontaneously or in response to a request from a group of concerned citizens. Rarely, they are approached by institutions requesting measurements . The individuals running the tests are, for the majority, not experts in environmental monitoring. However, they trained themselves, and benefit from the help of experts on how to collect sampling and analyse data .
Examples of the actions launched by the COVA Contro Association and AnalyzeBasilicata regard to the correlation between the ENI and INGV extractive operations in the region and the seismic status of Val d’Agri, Basilicata. The collective interestingly mentioned the Aarhus Convention when denouncing the lack of transparency and public participation on the matter to the Italian environmental protection agency, ISPRA, to the Italian anti-corruption agency, ANAC, to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and to the National Anti-Mafia Directorate. The reliance of the local collective’s discourse on entitlements deriving from an international legal body is particularly relevant as it demonstrates how the local needs to ‘rely on the global’ to strengthen its arguments, yet resting strongly grounded in the local dimension.
Another timely intervention of the collective is represented by the analysis performed in the area of Policoro, Basilicata, where the civic monitoring, originally looking for traces of trihalomethanes in drinking water (which were instead found under threshold), discovered traces of two halogenated compounds that are recognized to have carcinogenic effects. The tests were run as cross-check of those performed by the competent authorities. The organization lamented the unfulfilled duty of public authorities to ensure that drinking water are preserved free from pollutants, thus including not only the substances provided by the Italian legislative decree 31/2001 but all substances possibly noxious to human health. This way the collective showed to be aware of the legal framework and to ground its claim on institutionally recognized legal entitlements, partially covered by the right to live in a healthy environment. The organization demanded a legal intervention by asking for the definition of clear maximum thresholds for the presence of the toxic carcinogenic compounds in drinking water. This approach is also particularly noteworthy as it shows that civic resistance still need to ‘use’ the system, while resisting it, and the appeal to legal provisions seems a way to find a form of recognition in the establishment.
The founder of AnalyzeBasilicata, Giorgio Santoriello , affirmed that the trigger for the launch of the initiative was the distrust towards the data provided (often scarce or difficult to access) by the environmental agency responsible for the territory. Santoriello described how the agency was unequipped and lacking personnel. From a first stage of ‘shadowing’ what the agency was doing to monitor the environmental conditions of the area, they started performing the monitoring themselves, comparing the two and identifying discrepancies. The first accreditation, according to Santoriello, was the social support from the concerned citizens through financial support and follow-up on media. Despite being critical towards the established way of environmental monitoring in Basilicata, the collective has always been willing to cooperate with the prosecutor offices, environmental agencies and politicians to shed light on the malfunctions of the environmental governance system in the region. This ‘open’ approach is also worth of reflection: the collective challenges the system, but it is ready to engage in a dialogue with established institutions in view of the ultimate goal, i.e. the improvement of environmental protection in Basilicata.
Despite relying on legal norms, Santoriello seemed to suggest that the laws on transparency and public accountability, as well as those on civic access to environmental information and participation in environmental decision-making, are insufficient to concretely enforce citizens’ rights. First, they would be too soft, not providing for actual sanctions. Second, their enforcement in courts would require high financial resources that often citizens’ organizations lack. Thirdly, they are often applicable only in cases of plain violations, and not in the daily subtler instances of citizen’s misinformation or of inaccessible information. Santoriello identifies in citizen-run technologies a light of hope to tackle the problem of poor environmental monitoring or hidden environmental data. He considers nowadays more pressing than in the past the need to use technology to draw the link between environmental pollutants and human health. Santoriello stresses the centrality of having ‘doubting’ citizens that crosscheck the environmental information received as a way to improve environmental monitoring, to ensure the respect of fundamental rights and to promote accountability.
Overall, this accountability outcome seems resulting of a combination of the following elements: distrust towards environmental (mis)management generates a civic initiative based on citizen-run technologies; the collective gains credibility (activists obtain scientific accreditation for their measurements); by cross-checking institutional data, the group manages to demonstrate substantial deviation from a proper environmental management; the collective obtains attention of larger sections of society; they justify their actions based on norms but simultaneously discard them; ultimately, though just a ‘drop in the ocean’, a push towards more transparency and accountability is activated.
Anna Berti Suman – is a PhD researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (The Netherlands), investigating forms of environmental monitoring ‘from below’. Anna has work and research experience in environmental crimes (Ecuador) and water conflicts (Chile); Anna is pro-bono environmental lawyer for Greenpeace International.
You can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Call performed on September 24, 2018, with the founder of ‘AnalyzeBasilicata’, Giorgio Santoriello.
On 26 October, DATACTIVE hosts the philosopher and science studies scholar Noortje Marres to discuss and problematize the role of social science today. The DATACTIVE team will engage with Marres to discuss chapters of her book Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research. The exchange is expected to delve into the social sciences from various perspectives derived from team members’ research fields, and will be anchored in the contemporary challenges to digital societies and beyond.
Marres is Associate Professor in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick and sits in the advisory board of DATACTIVE. Currently, she is a Visiting Professor in the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Leiden. Her work is located in the interdisciplinary field of Science, Technology and Society (STS).
DATACTIVE joins WOinActie’s week of protest and wants to publicly manifest its support to the struggle of students and staff.
We stand against budget cuts, overwhelming workloads, and the neoliberalization of education.
We demand adequate funding, less pressure on teachers and students and a model of university that privileges critical thinking over profit making.
Nick Couldry and Ulisse A. Mejias re-frame the Data from the South debate within the context of modern day colonialism: data colonialism; an alarming stage where human life is “appropriated through data” and life is, eventually, “capitalized without limit”.
This essay marks the beginning of a series of articles under a special issue on Big Data from the South, edited by Stefania Milan and Emiliano Trerè and published on the Television and New Media Journal. This article will be freely accessible for the first month, so we encourage you to put it high up on your to-read list.
The special issue promises interesting takes and approaches from renowned scholars and experts in the filed, such as Angela Daly and Monique Mann, Payal Arora, Stefania Milan and Emiliano Trerè, Jean-Marie Chenou and Carolina Cepeda, Paola Ricaurte Quijano, Jacobo Najera and Jesús Robles Maloof, with a special commentary by Anita Say Chan. Stay tuned for our announcements of these articles as they come up.
DATACTIVE welcomes its newest addition, Lara AlMalakeh, who joins the team as a Managing Editor of the three blogs of the project.
Lara has just obtained a MA in Comparative Cultural Analysis from the University of Amsterdam. Before that she obtained a Post Graduate in Principles and Practice of Translation from City University London. Lara wears many hats as she initially studied Fine Arts in Damascus University and graduated with specialization in oil painting. She then built a career in administration spanning over 12 years in Dubai, UAE. During that time, she joined Global Voices as the Arabic language editor and started translating for NGOs specialized in advocacy and digital rights, namely Electronic Frontier Foundation and First Draft News.
DATACTIVE is glad with the diversity that this new addition brings to its ensemble of academics and activists. The team is looking forward to leveraging on the various skills and attributes Lara brings along, whether from her professional background or her various involvements in the activism sphere.
Lara is a proud mother of two girls under 10. She enjoys discussing politics and debating art over a beer. Her new found love is philosophy and she dreads bikes.
By Silvia Masiero, Loughborough University
The notion of datafication implies rendering existing objects, actions and processes into data. Widely studied in the field of business intelligence, datafication is known to restructure consumer behaviour and the functioning of markets in multiple ways. But a less-widely researched aspect pertains to the datafication of public welfare and social protection programmes, on which the livelihoods of many poor and vulnerable people worldwide are based. The field of information and communication technology for development (ICT4D), which for more than thirty years has focused on the roles of informatics in development processes, is coming to realize the growing importance of datafication in the enactment of social policies.
Datafication acquires a particular meaning when referring to anti-poverty programmes, which are social protection schemes designed specifically for the poor. In such schemes, what is converted into machine-readable data is in the first place the population of entitled users. This leads to restructuring two core functions of anti-poverty schemes: first is the recognition of beneficiaries, automatizing the process that discriminates entitled individuals and households from non-entitled ones. Second is the correct assignation of entitlements, based on the availability of machine-readable data for their determination. While both functions were previously paper-based or only partially digitized, datafication affords the power to automatize them, with a view of infusing greater effectiveness and accountability in programme design.
Against this backdrop, my research focuses on the two concomitant aspects of the effects of datafication on the architecture of anti-poverty programmes, and its consequences on the entitlements that beneficiaries receive through them. My PhD thesis focused on the digitalization of the Public Distribution System (PDS), which is India’s largest food security programme and centres on distributing primary necessity items (mainly rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene) at subsidized prices to the nation’s poor. The back-end digitalization of the scheme, started at the state level in the early 2000s, is now culminating in datafication of the programme through the Unique Identity Project (Aadhaar), an identity scheme that constitutes the biggest biometric identification database in the world. Built with the declared purpose of facilitating the socioeconomic inclusion of India’s poor, Aadhaar provides all enrolees with a 12-digit number and the capture of biometric details, to make sure, among other aspects, that each enrolee obtains their social benefits through a simple operation of biometric recognition.
Datafication contributes to deep transformation of anti-poverty programmes, with mixed effects on programme architecture and entitlements of beneficiaries
My data collection on the datafied PDS has occurred in the two southern Indian states of Kerala and Karnataka, and also comprehends a review of the state-level cases of Aadhaar-based PDS currently operating in India. Through the years, my research has developed three lines of reflection which I synoptically illustrate below.
First, datafication is constructed by the Indian central government as a tool for simplification of access, and of improvement of users’ capability to obtain their entitlements under existing schemes. The Aadhaar-based PDS is indeed constructed to reduce the inclusion error, meaning access to the programme by non-entitled people, and the exclusion error (Swaminathan 2002), meaning the negation of subsidy to the entitled. In doing so, the biometric system traces sales from PDS ration shops to reduce diversion (rice mafia), an illegal network through which foodgrains aimed at the poor are diverted on the market for higher margins. What emerges from my research is a strong governmental narrative portraying Aadhaar as a problem-solver of PDS: technology is depicted by government officials as a simplifier of the existing system, facilitating a better and more accountable functioning of a leakage-prone anti-poverty scheme that has been in operation for a long time.
Second, recipients’ view of the datafied PDS is mixed: it reveals some positive changes, but also a set of issues that were not in place before the advent of the biometric system. One, making access conditional to enrolment in the Aadhaar database, the new system subordinates the universal right to food to enrolment in a biometric database, leading the poor to ‘trade’ their data for the food rations needed for their livelihoods. Two, while the programme is designed to combat the inclusion error, new forms of exclusion are caused by systems’ malfunctionings leading to failure in user recognition, which in turn results in families having their food rations denied even for several months in a row. Three, the system is not built to act on the back-end diversion (PDS commodities being diverted before they reach the ration shops where users buy them), where, according to existing studies of the PDS supply chain, the greatest part of goods is diverted (Khera 2011, Drèze & Khera 2015).
Third, there is a specific restructuring intent behind the creation of an Aadhaar-based PDS. From documents and narratives released by the central government, a clear teleology emerges: Aadhaar is not conceived to simply streamline the PDS, but to substitute it, in the longer run, with a system of cash transfers to the bank accounts of beneficiaries. As government officials declare, this serves the purpose of reducing the distortion caused by subsidies, and create a more effective system where existing leakages cannot take place. A large majority of beneficiaries, however, is suspicious towards cash transfers (Drèze et al. 2017): a prominent argument is that these are more complex to collect and handle, with respect to the secure materiality of PDS food rations. What is sure, beyond points of view on the appropriateness of cash transfers, is that the teleology behind the Aadhaar-based PDS is not that of streamlining the system, but that of creating a new one where the logic of buying goods on the market replaces the existing logic of subsidies.
Aadhaar concurs to enable a shift from in-kind subsidies to cash transfers, with uncertain consequences on poor people’s entitlements
Rooted into field research on datafied anti-poverty systems, these reflections offer two main contributions to extant theorizations of datafication in the Global South. First, they highlight the role of state governments in using datafied systems towards construction of a positive image of themselves, portraying datafication as a problem-solving tool adopted to tackle the most pressing issues affecting existing programmes. The power of datafication, embodied by large biometric infrastructures such as Aadhaar, is used to project an image of accountability and effectiveness, relied upon in electoral times and in the construction of consensus from the public opinion. At the same time, citizens’ perspectives reveal forms of data injustice (Heeks & Renken 2018) which did not exist before datafication, such as the denial of subsidies based on failure of user recognition by point-of-sale machines or the subordination of the right to food to enrolment in a national biometric database.
Second, datafication is often portrayed by governments and public entities as a means to streamline anti-poverty programmes, improving the mechanisms at the basis of their functioning. By contrast, my research suggests a more pervasive role of datafication, capable of transforming the very basis on which existing social protection systems are grounded (Masiero 2015). The Aadhaar case is a revealing one in this respect: as it is incorporated in extant subsidy systems, Aadhaar does not aim to simply improve their functioning, but to substitute the logic of in-kind subsidies with a market-based architecture of cash transfers. Moving the drivers of governance of anti-poverty systems from the state to the market, datafication is hence implicated in a deep reformative effort, which may have massive consequences on programme architecture and the entitlements of the poor.
Entrenched in the Indian system of social protection, Aadhaar is today the greatest datafier of anti-poverty programmes in the world. Here we have outlined its primary effects, and especially its ability to reshape existing anti-poverty policies at their very basis. Ongoing research across ICT4D, data ethics and development studies pertains to the ways datafication will affect anti-poverty programme entitlements, for the many people whose livelihoods are predicated on them.
Silvia Masiero is a lecturer in International Development at the School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University. Her research concerns the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in socio-economic development, with a focus on the participation of ICT artefacts in the politics of anti-poverty programmes and emergency management.
Drèze, J., and Khera, R. (2015) Understanding leakages in the Public Distribution System. Economic and Political Weekly, 50(7), 39-42.
Drèze, J., Khalid, N., Khera, R., & Somanchi, A. (2017). Aadhaar and Food Security in Jharkhand. Economic & Political Weekly, 52(50), 50-60.
Heeks, R., & Renken, J. (2018). Data justice for development: What would it mean? Information Development, 34(1), 90-102.
Khera, R. (2011). India’s Public Distribution System: utilisation and impact. Journal of Development Studies, 47(7), 1038-1060.
Masiero, S. (2015). Redesigning the Indian food security system through e-governance: The case of Kerala. World Development, 67, 126-137.
Swaminathan, M. (2002). Excluding the needy: The public provisioning of food in India. Social Scientist, 30(3-4), 34-58.