Data Colonization in a Time of Pandemic

By: Sarah Paço

“Colonialism” is certainly a term with a convoluted reputation. Traditionally, colonialism refers to a nation physically claiming another territory in the world and exploiting the people and natural resources of that land for its own capitalistic interests.[1] For example, European colonialism began in the late fifteenth century with Portugal’s exploration of the Atlantic, leading to the discovery and colonization of locations such as the Azores and the Madeira Islands.[2] Subsequently, Portugal’s vast expansion encouraged other nations like Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands to colonize territories overseas.[3] The era of Western colonialism remained the international norm until the beginning of the First World War; decolonization then spread significantly, with many former colonies finally gaining independence in the latter half of the twentieth century.[4]

Today, a new wave of colonialism is taking over various parts of the world, but not through the traditional methods of occupation and exploitation one may expect. Rather, what is currently occurring is known as “data colonialism.” Also referred to as “digital colonialism,” this is a process in which powerful nations and their corporations provide developing states with technological infrastructures; then, they exploit the individuals who use the technology by taking their data and selling that information for profit.[5] In the past, colonialism was utilized to collect a territory’s natural resources such as precious metals, plants, and human beings themselves.[6] With data colonialism, the desired resources are individuals’ data and information.[7] States, like the United States and China, have been providing countries throughout Africa and Asia with communication infrastructures, such as social media.[8] By doing this, the technology is able to gather individualized data: phone number, face scans, ad clicks, search queries, and personal information.[9] From there, personalized data is sold to advertising and consulting firms, who are then paid by companies to intentionally target groups of people with certain messages.[10] In developing democracies in particular, data colonialism poses a dangerous threat as the spread of political misinformation could quickly spiral to civil unrest.[11]

Unfortunately, many citizens are unaware that we live in an era of data colonialism, as those who utilize certain technologies agree to have their information collected without their explicit consent.[12] And, as the coronavirus pandemic only worsens in many parts of the world, governments around the world are pressuring or requiring their citizens to utilize tracing apps in order for the government to keep track of COVID-19 cases.[13] While this may aid a government in determining how to address the ongoing pandemic within its borders, perhaps the social costs may be too high. Citizens are unknowingly permitting their states, and therefore the companies which provide their states with tracing technology, to gather information for other purposes aside from COVID-19 tracking. At a time when corporations and governments should be using their technology to protect its citizens, it is truly devastating yet unsurprising that economic interests come before citizens’ individual privacy rights.

[1] Erin Blakemore, What is Colonialism?, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/topics/reference/colonialism/#close (last visited Aug. 25, 2020).

[2] Amanda Briney, A Brief History of the Age of Exploration, ThoughtCo., https://www.thoughtco.com/age-of-exploration-1435006 (last updated Jan. 24, 2020).

[3] Id.

[4] Blakemore, supra note 1.

[5] Silas L. Marker et al., Digital Colonialism on the African Continent, Afr. Stat. NewsL. (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Addis Ababa, Eth.) 2019, at 6.

[6] Richard A. Webster et. al, Western Colonialism, Encyclopaedia Britannica (Nov. 5, 2018), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Western-colonialism/European-expansion-since-1763.

[7] Marker et al., supra note 5.

[8] See id.; Jacqueline Hicks, ‘Digital Colonialism’ Why Some Countries Want to Take Control of Their People’s Data From Big Tech, U. of Nottingham Asia Res. Inst. (Oct. 28, 2019), https://theasiadialogue.com/2019/10/28/digital-colonialism-why-some-countries-want-to-take-control-of-their-peoples-data-from-big-tech/.

[9] Mark van Rijmenam, What Data Do the Five Largest Tech Companies Collect- Infographic, Datafloq (July 26, 2013), https://datafloq.com/read/what-data-do-the-five-largest-tech-companies-colle/427.

[10]See Marker et al., supra note 5.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Patrick Howell O’Neill, India is Forcing People to Use Its COVID App, Unlike Any Other Democracy, MIT Tech. Rev. (May 7, 2020), https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/05/07/1001360/india-aarogya-setu-covid-app-mandatory/.