Big Data: High Tech Low Privacy

By Vivian Newman*

 

I was born in the Caribbean in a house with many doors that were always open. I used to think closed doors and having a private life was only for keeping out people I did not trust. But as I grew up and the world turned digital, I began to understand the importance of having real and virtual doors to develop the curiosity and freedom to be oneself. I also discovered that in addition to improving communication, when there is no reasonable regulation this new information age and the ongoing massive data gathering are very useful for tracking and misusing information in the name of good causes.

For example, in the past, Colombian journalists, magistrates, union members, political opponents and defenders of human rights have been illegally wiretapped and some were threatened, assassinated and tortured by paramilitaries. The paramilitary was able to access personal information kept by state agencies, such as the former intelligence agency (known in Colombia as DAS). This happened to the sociologist and academic Alfredo Correa de Andreis, assassinated in my hometown by paramilitaries, thanks to personal information provided by the DAS. It also happened to Colombian journalist Claudia Julieta Duque who found out that the state agents who were supposed to protect her had been using all her personal information to threaten her and her family.

Probably because of this history of violations in Colombia, the Santos government´s reaction to the revelations of mass surveillance by the US´ National Security Agency (provided by former contractor Edward Snowden) was weak.  After releasing a two-paragraph press release and making couple of pathetic declarations, there has only been silence. Human rights were never mentioned.  This was the Colombian government´s reaction until two months ago, when the press uncovered a surveillance program called Andromeda that was set up to spy on the email and other communications between the peace negotiators in Havana, as well as the President himself and 400 political opponents. The President’s statements after this discovery provided a smokescreen to hide the ongoing human rights violations. He called for a commission focused on protecting our security, with no mention of the violation of privacy rights. Civil society was not included in this commission, even though we asked to participate.

Now that there is technology available to gather massive amounts of personal data and easily create profiles of people, the risks of leaving doors open has increased. Considering the delinquent tendencies of Colombian investigative and intelligence agencies and the fact that cell phones are easily mined for data gathering, we should be concerned about two new surveillance tools.  Both can easily be used to break the digital doors of privacy and violate human rights in Colombia:

  1. P.U.M.A. is a platform so Colombian police can intercept up to 20,000 mass media and social network messages at the same time. It is the Colombian equivalent of the PRISM program denounced by Snowden, which creates a huge temptation for collecting personal data with no respect for privacy.
  2. In Colombia there is a Unique Registry of Victims (known as RUV in Spanish) which has information about 6,231,617 persons who have been disappeared, kidnapped, tortured, killed, threatened, evicted, recruited, as a result of the Colombian armed conflict. This registry contains information about the person’s racial and ethnic origins, political opinions, union affiliation and some may even have information about their health or sex life.  Maintaining closed doors to this registry is of paramount importance.

In the future, if any country wants to lead on internet privacy rights, its surveillance standards must include effective privacy doors that are both necessary and proportionate. To ward off the risk of having people break down these doors and violating human rights either purposefully or negligently, there are at least three important considerations they should keep in mind:

  1. Focus on the protection of privacy as a human right when there is mass surveillance.
  2. Think about how direct relationships between States can influence domestic political decisions regarding big data collection.
  3. Be careful with the sale of massive surveillance technology. This includes having control, licenses, conditions and constant monitoring, as well as adequate trainings on how to respect human rights and follow the relevant laws of both the importing and exporting country.

As I grow older and understand the use of meta data and the role protective privacy doors play in this digital era, I believe that taking the above precautions, along with others, will help make the difference, in Colombia or elsewhere, between an authoritarian and a democratic State.

 

* Vivian Newman is Deputy Director of Dejusticia (The Center for Law, Justice and Society)

This blog entry is an adaptation of a statement read by Vivian Newman in the British House of Commons on April 9, 2014 : https://www.privacyinternational.org/events/the-global-perspective-on-surveillance-international-voices-on-why-the-snowden-revelations