Category Archives: Ethics

Social networks, digital technologies and political change in North Africa

Much has been written about the potential of new ICTs, and particularly mobile technologies and social networking software, to transform political and social systems.  A fundamental question that underlies all work in ICT4D is whether new ICTs can indeed be used by the poor to overthrow oppressive regimes, or whether, like other technologies before them, ICTs are used primarily by the rich and powerful to maintain their positions of power.  Until very recently, it seemed that despite the potential of ICTs to undermine dominant political structures, most attempts to do so have been ruthlessly crushed.  The ruling regime in Iran was thus able to suppress the ‘Twitter Revolution’ of 2009-10, and the Burmese government likewise maintained its grip on power despite extensive use of mobile ‘phones and the Internet during protests in 2007.

Recent events in North Africa, with the overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia and the continuing protests against President Mubarak in Egypt, have widely been attributed in considerable part to the agency of mobile ‘phones and the use of social networking environments over the Internet.  Whilst it is too early fully to judge their importance in fueling such political protests, the following reports provide evidence in support of such claims:



Wider ramifications

Much research needs to be undertaken on the real role of ICTs in these ongoing political processes.  What seems apparent, though, is that many participants do indeed believe that these technologies are helping them achieve their objectives.


Filed under 'phones, Accessibility, Africa, Development, Ethics, Social Networking

ICTs, citizens and the state: moral philosophy and development practices

Great to see my latest paper just published in The Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries – thanks to Mark Levy and Vignesh Ilvarasan for all their editorial work on this.

The paper examines the moral implications of the use of ICTs in e-government initiatives, focusing especially on national databases, identity cards, and surveillance technologies. It suggests that in resolving debates over these, we need to reach ethical resolutions concerning notions of trust, privacy, and the law. It also draws attention to the ethical problems that emerge in linking the notion of of Universal Human Rights with the introduction of ICTs in developing countries.

As I argue in the paper, “The really difficult ethical questions that arise from this are about how we judge whether it is better for poor and marginalised communities for such egovernment initiatives to have been introduced, or whether they might actually be more advantaged if their governments did not spend vast sums of money on their implementation. Just because it is possible to implement national citizen databases, to use biodata for ID cards, and to introduce sophisticated digital surveillance mechanisms does not mean that it is right to do so”.

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Filed under Development, Ethics, ICT4D

Development as ‘economic growth’ or ‘poverty reduction’

Will economic growth lead to poverty reduction?  I believe passionately that the market will never serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.  This seems to me to be so clear and obvious that it scarcely needs defending!  However, I am becoming increasingly worried that such opinions are very much in the minority. The dominant, hegemonic view amongst most of those working in the field of development really does seem to be that economic growth will indeed eliminate poverty.

Following my recent keynote at m4Life on 28th October, at which I argued that we need to develop ways in which mobiles can be used to support marginalised groups, such as people with disabilities, I was very strongly challenged by an African colleague, whose views I respect.  In essence, she accused me of being a typical western academic who does not really understand Africa, and that if I did I would know that most Africans wanted economic growth. By focusing on the poorest, she suggested that my views were tantamount to arguing that Africans should remain poor. I felt deeply hurt by these accusations, and am still smarting from their vehemence some two weeks later! I actually don’t know why, they hurt so much, but perhaps it is because I have elsewhere argued strongly that Africa is indeed rich, and that we need to help build on its richness rather than always describing it as being poor!  The irony is that the paper I have written on this has continually been rejected by academic journals – quite possibly because it too does not conform to accepted dogma!

I clearly need to learn to express my arguments more convincingly.  This is a brief attempt to do so in the form of some basic principles:

  • The potential for inequality to increase is inherent within all economic growth.
  • Economic growth, defined in absolute terms, cannot therefore eliminate poverty (see my critique of Jeffrey Sachs, for example, in ‘No end to poverty’)
  • If economic growth proceeds unchecked, it will inevitably lead to increased inequality that will ultimately fuel social and political unrest at a range of scale
  • A fundamental role of states is thus to intervene in the market to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised are not excessively disadvantaged.
  • Given that the market serves the interests of the majority of people, it is incumbent on those who care about reducing inequalities specifically also to address the needs and interests of the poor.
  • Such an argument can be justified both on moral grounds (that it is just), and also on socio-political grounds (to reduce potential violence)
  • With reference to mobile technologies, therefore, all I was doing in my keynote was to argue that companies, entrepreneurs, app developers, and all those claiming to use ‘mobiles for development’ should seek to address the needs of the poor and marginalised, alongside those of global corporations and their shareholders.
  • This is premised upon a belief that ‘development’ is about rather more than just economic growth, and includes notions of equality of opportunity and social justice.

These arguments are developed more fully in:


Filed under Africa, Development, Ethics, ICT4D, Photographs

Watching the watchers watching…

In recent months I seem to have posted several photos of ongoing surveillance, generally by people acting on behalf of the state.  Perhaps I should start a collection of these!  So, here is another one (Camden CCTV again) patrolling the streets near Euston.  I wonder how much footage they take and what they do with the images.

This is what Camden Council’s website has to say on this under the heading of “enforcement”: “We have responsibility for the enforcement of the borough’s parking and moving traffic regulations and this is carried out by Civil Enforcement Officers (CEOs) (formerly known as Parking Attendants) and through the use of CCTV. The scheme is part of the Association of London Government’s (ALG), the Mayor of London and London Borough of Camden’s commitment to the travelling public to keep London moving and ease congestion.”

What an amazing upgrade, Parking Attendants can now be confused with Chief Executive Officers!

Camden’s more detailed account goes on to say that this is done:
  • “to stop traffic congestion
  • alienate inconsiderate motorists
  • free up the bus lane to combat delays for commuters
  • to allow the free flow of traffic
  • improve journey times for bus users”

Am I the only one who finds words such as “enforcement”, “alienate” and “combat” just  a tiny bit worrying?  So, let’s keep watching the watchers…

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Filed under Ethics, Photographs, UK

UK government set to re-examine Google’s infringements of privacy

Great to see the announcement reported by the BBC that Britain’s privacy watchdog is to re-examine the personal information that Google has gathered from private wi-fi networks.

As the BBC article commented, “The Information Commissioner’s Office had investigated a sample earlier this year after it was revealed that Google had collected personal data during its Street View project. At the time, it said no “significant” personal details were collected. But Google has since admitted that e-mails and passwords were copied. … Google’s admission of more detailed data has prompted further action by the ICO. “We will be making enquires to see whether this information relates to the data inadvertently captured in the UK, before deciding on the necessary course of action, including a consideration of the need to use our enforcement powers,” a spokesman said.‬ Google’s director of privacy Alma Whitten said the company would work with the ICO to answer its “further questions and concerns”.”

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Many popular Android apps share location and unique identifiers with advertisers

A recent report on the BBC website notes a study by researchers from Intel Labs, Penn State and Duke University which shows that “Some of the most popular apps written for Google’s Android phones do not tell users what is done with data they gather… . Half of 30 applications studied share location information and unique identifiers with advertisers”. Two-thirds of these popular third-party apps showed suspicious handling of personal data.

Information from the ‘phones was sent to advertisers without the users being told that data was being shared with them.  As the BBC report goes on to note,  “Some apps gathered and despatched location information even when an application was not running and some sent updates every 30 seconds.”

Whilst users should always be wary of downloading any apps that they do not necessarily trust, this seems to be yet another example of Google not being the fully trustworthy company that it would like people to believe it is.  It would be a relatively simple matter to ensure that all users are automatically warned about this when software is downloaded. As the researchers conclude, “Android’s coarse-grained access control provides insufficient protection against third-party applications seeking to collect sensitive data”.

This is definitely a powerful reason why Android ‘phones should be avoided, and once again raises serious concerns about Google’s lack of ethical probity.

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Filed under Ethics, ICT4D

UK Government switches off child database

I have previously raised concerns about the creation of the national ContactPoint database of all children that was put in place in 2009. I’m therefore delighted to note that this is to be shut down.

The BBC  reports that the “£235m government database containing the records of England’s 11 million children has been switched off. … Within two months of the switch-off all the data collected for the system is to be destroyed, although the information will still remain in the social services, education and health departments it had been gathered from. But there have been concerns that there is nothing collating key information centrally in one place. The system, which has been running since January last year, was always controversial and was set to cost a further £41m a year. After successive delays, it was rolled out to only 15,000 users, out of the initial target of 330,000. The system was used by doctors, social workers, schools, charities and other individuals involved in the protection of children. Many said it was useful in tracking children and discovering the truth about the way they are cared for. …  But civil liberties groups criticised it as intrusive and disproportionate.”

While it is of course crucial that we find ways to try to ensure that all those seeking to support “children at risk” can share information efficiently, the creation of a national database of information about all children raised huge ethical issues.  Whilst it seems that the reason for the closure of ContactPoint was largely on cost grounds, it is good to see that this represents at least a small step back from the excessive use of ICTs by the UK state to maintain databases of information so that it can more effectively monitor and control the country’s population.

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Filed under Ethics, ICT4D, UK

ICTs and Special Educational Needs in Ghana

Godfred Bonnah Nkansah and I are delighted that our paper on the contribution of ICTs to the delivery of special educational needs in Ghana has just been published in Information Technology for Development, 16(3), 2010, 191-211. The paper not only provides rich empirical evidence of the usage and potential of ICTs in the special educational needs sector in Ghana, but also argues strongly that much more attention should be paid to the positive benefits that ICTs can bring to the lives of people with disabilities across Africa.

This paper explores three main issues in the context of Ghana: constraints on the delivery of effective special educational needs (SEN); the range of information and communication technologies (ICT)-based needs identified by teachers, pupils and organizations involved in the delivery of SEN; and existing practices in the use of ICTs in SEN in the country. It concludes that people with disabilities continue to be highly marginalized, both in terms of policy and practice. Those involved in delivering SEN nevertheless recognize that ICTs can indeed contribute significantly to the learning processes of people with disabilities. Governments across Africa must take positive action to ensure that such experience with ICTs can be used to enable those with SEN to achieve their their full potential, whether in special schools or included within mainstream education.

For media comments on this research see:

  • The Commonwealth Secretariat News


Filed under Accessibility, Africa, Education, Ethics, ICT4D

Who’s watching who at LHR?

The extent of state surveillance in the UK increases apace. Imagine my surprise when I saw this police car with a surveillance camera on the roof when I was recently passing through London Heathrow!

Perhaps we should all start taking photographs of those who are taking photographs of us while we are going about our day-to-day business!

What happens to all the photographs that the police take of us?  Imagine what would happen if we all asked for copies of such photographs under Freedom of Information legislation! Just because it is possible for the state to photograph its citizens and store this information does not mean that it is right for the state to do so.

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Filed under Ethics, Photographs

Google admits that its Street View cars collected WiFi information

The Guardian newspaper reported yesterday that “Google has been accidentally gathering extracts of personal web activity from domestic wifi networks through the Street View cars it has used since 2007”.

Can anyone really believe that Google did this by accident? The ‘discovery’ was made because Germany’s data protection authority demanded an audit of Google’s data. As the Guardian report continued “As well as systematically photographing streets and gathering 3D images of cities and towns around the world, Google’s Street View cars are fitted with antennas that scan local wifi networks and use the data for its location services”.

This is a clear invasion of privacy, and is absolutely typical of Google’s cavalier attitude towards the ways in which ICTs have transformed our approaches to what can be deemed ‘public’ and ‘private’ information.

Google’s blog on the 14th May, included a statement by Alan Eustace, Senior VP, Engineering & Research who commented that “Nine days ago the data protection authority (DPA) in Hamburg, Germany asked to audit the WiFi data that our Street View cars collect for use in location-based products like Google Maps for mobile, which enables people to find local restaurants or get directions. His request prompted us to re-examine everything we have been collecting, and during our review we discovered that a statement made in a blog post on April 27 was incorrect. In that blog post, and in a technical note sent to data protection authorities the same day, we said that while Google did collect publicly broadcast SSID information (the WiFi network name) and MAC addresses (the unique number given to a device like a WiFi router) using Street View cars, we did not collect payload data (information sent over the network). But it’s now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products”.

Google went on to say that this was quite simply a mistake: “So how did this happen? Quite simply, it was a mistake. In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental WiFi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast WiFi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic WiFi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google’s Street View cars, they included that code in their software—although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data”.

The point is that mistakes do happen; no digital system is entirely secure.  This is one of the reasons why they should not be collecting such data in the first place!  If they make mistakes such as this, how can anyone believe them when they say that they are not using the data?  They use all other data that they collect, such as information from searches on Google, and the e-mails people send using Google mail!

Eustace concluded by saying what Google would do about this incident: “Maintaining people’s trust is crucial to everything we do, and in this case we fell short. So we will be:

  • Asking a third party to review the software at issue, how it worked and what data it gathered, as well as to confirm that we deleted the data appropriately; and
  • Internally reviewing our procedures to ensure that our controls are sufficiently robust to address these kinds of problems in the future…

The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust—and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here. We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake”.

Google have not had my trust for a very long time.  Yes, they have a great search engine – but they should stick to that, and stop “ogling” at us in other ways!

It is also a timely reminder for those who do not protect their WiFi networks, that they should indeed do so with robust passwords!

Other reports on this announcement include:

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