COVID-19? Data Appropriation as a Feminist Issue (Part 2)

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[Part 1 of this article discussed how the securitization of the current pandemic led to harmful practices to digital privacy and transparency, treating data as an asset whose value is exponentially increasing. We explored the ways in which the right to privacy is being violated, why this is problematic, and how to protect yourself]

Less Transparency

Freedom of expression and access to information, including public information, is a right guaranteed under international human rights law. In line with Art. 19(2) of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), governments must ensure that we can seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers. Connected to transparency is also the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs, as established in Art. 25 of the ICCPR.

In open government parlance, this comes to be through transparency policies, both active and passive. In recent times, governments are increasingly failing at their duty to maintain passive transparency (in which information is made available according to the demands of society), let alone active transparency (the voluntary disclosure of information by public agents).

1) Withholding, altering, and censoring COVID-19-related information

Contrary to what common sense would dictate in times of uncertainty and panic, governments around the world have been under-reporting or sharing inaccurate information on the severity of the virus (see here and here). Back in December 2019, China downplayed the seriousness of the disease and the human-to-human contagiousness and Li Wenliang, the famous whistleblower from Wuhan who recently passed away, was censored by the government. Thai health sector workers and independent journalists sharing information on the outbreak faced lawsuits and intimidation. The same occurred in Iran. The United States Federal Government took over the COVID-narrative from health officials and scientists, lacking transparency and becoming increasingly ambiguous on drug shortages and the development of vaccines against the coronavirus. 

2) Limiting access to other public information

Democratic countries may grant citizens the right to access records of public agencies (such as policy statements, administrative manuals, or public expenditure reports) by adopting freedom of information legislation. Exceptions to this right can be granted in the name of the national interest or national security. 

Transparency is critical now more than ever, but certain states have gone in the opposite direction leaving citizens in the shadows without reasonable justification. “Due to the emergency COVID-19 situation,” the FBI only receives FOIA requests by standard email while American local governments are delaying responses to FOIA requests. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro decided to sign Provisional Measure 928, suspending deadlines for public authorities and institutions to respond to requests for information without the possibility of appeal for denied requests. 

Check your Sources, Demand Access, Stay Vigilant

As COVID-19 continues to spread and fatalities increase, what can you do when the states themselves spread misinformation and fail to maintain the highest standards of transparency on law and policy decision-making? 

Keep yourself informed from various trusted sources, domestic and international, official and independent. Report to civil society organizations such as Amnesty InternationalTransparency International, or the Electronic Frontier Foundation if you suspect your government is censoring or misreporting the pandemic and its effects. Wherever possible, don’t let governments use the current commotion to get away with passing potentially harmful legislation or policies: stay alert and vigilant on sudden political or legislative maneuvers. If you fear retaliation but still want to report these practices, follow proper cyber hygiene (see Part 1 of this article) and recommendations to anonymize your communications and presence online. 

Unforeseen Crisis, Intersectional Crisis

Some may argue that a health crisis of such magnitude was unforeseen. It has, however, brought to the surface pre-existing systemic inequalities that leave marginalized sectors of the population at a greater risk.

People living in poverty, homeless people, and refugees are significantly constrained when it comes to taking preventive measures such as self-isolation or sanitization. In some countries, LGBTI populations face discrimination in accessing health care. Women represent 70% of workers in the health and social sectors, now at the frontlines of the fight against the virus and constantly exposed to it.

Confinement and the oversaturation of the health system have devastating effects on women and girls. Past examples of enforced confinement have seen domestic abuse increase swiftly and steadily. Access to contraception and maternal mortality are also affected by the lack of health supplies and human resources.

The economic aftermath will also be felt more strongly by certain social sectors. Informal and low-income workers, with little to no financial security, will now be subject to income reductions or unemployment. Part-time workers are mainly women, making their jobs more vulnerable to economic disruption. 

Data privacy and transparency are no exception to the rule. On the one hand, surveillance mechanisms have been proven to unfairly target specific ethnic, gender, and age groups in the past, and we have no guarantee this won’t be the case in the current pandemic. On the other hand, misinformation or censorship on COVID-19 data exponentially increases the risk of already vulnerable populations. To make matters worse, these marginalized groups are usually less prepared to protect themselves, due to a lack of digital literacy or restricted access to the Internet 

One thing we can be sure of: the disruptive effects of the pandemic and the emerging totalitarian practices remind us that, for a more sustainable world, we need concerted global policies that are respectful of our fundamental human rights and inclusive of all disadvantaged communities. Will you be part of this change? 

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Where are you standing in the current crisis? If your organization or company is interested in intersectional open government, citizen empowerment, Tech4Dem, and responsible use of data, contact the author of this article: Sofía Cossar, [email protected], Associate at Catalystas Consulting.