Big Data and International Development

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in Brighton, UK, has published an interesting research report: Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options, written by Stephen Spratt and Justin Baker.

It focusses on the use of the growing data pools in developing countries. It analyses several policy areas: economy, human development, rights, and environment.

The part on privacy rights mentions a very important aspect (page 29):

A primary responsibility of any government is to protect its citizens. Governments of all kinds have used big data techniques to identify and monitor potential threats. These same techniques, however, are also used to identify and monitor opponents of the government, or just groups with views the government does not like. In practice, it is not obvious how big data techniques could be restricted to the first type of example, as the way they are employed is dependent on what the government considers to be a ‘threat’, and this varies hugely.


It is very difficult for any government to argue that certain groups should not be suppressed in other countries, even where their governments disagree with them, if other groups – no matter how distasteful – are suppressed in their own country. For this reason, there seems no option but to err on the side of freedom of speech and association, within the law, for countries of all kinds.

Thinking further from these quotes, I also wonder how well governments in developing countries are able to protect their databases from intruders. This is especially true since it is possible to de-anonymise a database by combining it with other, differently anonymised databases. We live in a world were the most powerful democracy collects vast pools of information on the citizens of other countries, and offers these citizens no legal standing to defend their privacy. Many other, non-democratic or half-democratic countries are trying to copy this approach of stealing data wherever possible. And even countries that have taken position against this tendency (e.g. Germany) are at the same time remarkably shy about all practical steps to defend their citizens from these abuses. Do we really trust poor countries to get it right, when even the rich democracies fail spectacularly?