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Privacy in the Developing World

Building capacity and conducting research across the developing world.

We are living in a pivotal moment for the right to privacy in developing countries and emerging democracies. With new technologies empowering people around the world, and altering our relationships with governments and the corporate sector, strong legal frameworks are required to ensure that rights are adequately protected.

The complex process of negotiating privacy within this context is especially fraught in developing countries. It is here that technologies have the potential to be at their most transformative, by giving individuals the ability to access to information, express themselves, and participate in local and global discussions in unprecedented ways.

However, even as new technologies and capabilities flood into developing countries, the technical knowledge necessary to design legislative frameworks remains in short supply. At the same time, international regulatory consensus has yet to emerge around issues of data protection, and regional agreements remain in flux, depriving policymakers in developing countries of strong guidance and best practice upon which to base their own regulatory frameworks.

Consequently, developing countries are emerging as some of the world’s worst privacy violators: spying on their citizens, conducting extensive surveillance without a legal basis, actively censoring the internet, and failing to protect the privacy of personal data and digital communications. Such practices persistently violate the right to privacy while also threatening the enjoyment of other human rights. As the right to privacy becomes more and more embattled across the developing world, there is an urgent need to educate citizens and policy-makers about fortifying legal protections.

Privacy International is working to strengthen the advocacy capabilities and communication skills of civil society, and provide them with resources to ensure that governments are held to account, corporate influence is exposed, and citizens are empowered to claim their rights. In addition to conducting and supporting research and policy engagement,  we also conduct advocacy and intervene in cases in national, regional and international human rights fora to advance the right to privacy.

Our research and engagement agenda

Privacy International currently works with partner organisations in 17 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America to conduct research in developing countries directed at the following objectives:

  1. To identify the state of privacy protections in partner countries, and comparable standards and best practices, in order to facilitate policy engagement efforts designed to encourage the adoption, strengthening and  implementation of data protection frameworks.
  2. To understand the design and operation of different communications regimes, and to uncover surveillance practices, to socialise norms of  privacy in communications and advocate for legislative and regulatory  protections in communications systems.
  3. To establish the appropriate legal frameworks to implement advanced surveillance techniques within the confines of the rule of law.
  4. To uncover the nature and operation of local intelligence services, and advocate for the strengthening of oversight mechanisms.
  5. To reveal that measures taken in the name of development and security may lead to the quashing of dissent, the violation of sexual and reproductive rights, and the entrenchment of social divides.
  6. To critically analyse the state of privacy protections in public service delivery, with a particular focus on e-health systems and social protection programmes.
  7. To extend existing research and advocacy efforts to new countries and regions where ID and biometrics is emerging as a key topic of public discourse.

Click here to read more about our global research agenda.

Our partners

Click here to find out more about Privacy International's partner organisations and academics in developing countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Our international advocacy efforts

Privacy International works in national, regional and international human rights fora to advocate for stronger protections for privacy in the developing world. Some of our initiatives include:

Privacy in the Developing World

Anna Crowe's picture

Today’s much-anticipated launch of the 2013 Aid Transparency Index, an industry standard for assessing transparency among major aid donors, shows that, despite progress, many aid agencies continue to maintain secrecy around what they are funding.

Further, for those agencies that achieved high rankings in the index, transparency alone does not prevent one of our larger concerns: aid which facilitates impermissible surveillance of communities and individuals in the developing world. Biometric databases, electronic voting registration systems, criminal databases and border surveillance initiatives are being backed by Western donors keen to see the adoption abroad of technologies that raise considerable controversy at home.

In the media
Publication date: 
Par Saër SY
Original story link: 

Le fait que ces bases de données existent ouvre les possibilités qu’elles puissent être utilisées de manière illégale, si la finalité de leur utilisation n’était pas celle spécifiée au moment de leur prise » a indiqué Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion de Privacy international, fondé en 1990.

Edin Omanovic's picture

A sizeable political controversy has engulfed President Goodluck Jonathan’s Government in Nigeria, where details surrounding its plans for the total surveillance of Africa’s most populous country continue to emerge.

Thanks to pervasive snooping technology readily found and developed in the US, UK, Israel and the Netherlands, the already spy-equipped security forces in Nigeria will have greater and more intimate access to the lives of some 56 million Internet users and 115 million active fixed and mobile phone subscribers. The plans have been roundly condemned by Nigeria’s civil society and press, who fear a drift back to Nigeria’s dictatorial past and to the threat it poses to their fundamental human rights.  The apparent lack of any meaningful judicial framework and oversight for the deployment of the technology has so far not stopped government authorities pushing ahead with increased surveillance.

Opinion piece
Carly Nyst's picture

The following is an excerpt from an article written that originally was published by IFEX, and is written by Carly Nyst, Head of International Advocacy at Privacy International:

The reality of the modern world is that governments – both of our own countries, and of foreign states – have greater capabilities to carry out invasive surveillance of citizens, no matter where they reside or what flag they pledge to. And caught in the cross-fire of the expanding surveillance state is freedom of expression, which is underpinned by the right to privacy.

For a long time there have been legitimate fears of a pervasive surveillance state, and those fears continue to be confirmed by the Edward Snowden leaks, which week after week provide a progressively more terrifying glimpse into international spying regimes. It is now clear that the US and UK governments perceive broad-scale and real-time surveillance, once the reserve of repressive regimes, to be a legitimate tool of democratic states.

Alexandrine Pirlot's picture

The argument that human rights are a Western concept and that privacy is not a concern for the developing world was rejected last week in a two-day civil society seminar held in Dakar, Senegal.

More than 30 members of West African civil society participated in the seminar on privacy and data protection, organised by Jonction with the support of the Senegalese Commission for Data Protection. Participants denounced the shortcomings of governments and the private sector in upholding, protecting and promoting the right to privacy and personal data. The seminar was held in collaboration with Privacy International and IDRC as part of Privacy International’s “Privacy in the developing world project”.

Carly Nyst's picture

As if those in Pakistan did not have enough to worry about when it came to the security of their communications, recent changes to Pakistan’s anti-terror law could see people convicted for terrorism solely on the basis of incriminating text messages, phone calls, or email.

As part of a drive to increase the number of convictions of terror suspects, the government of Pakistan has recently beefed up its anti-terror laws through a presidential ordinance that will permit prolonged detention of terror suspects and the expanded use of email and phone evidence in certain criminal trials. It is just another indication of Pakistan’s drift toward authoritarianism and the government’s total disregard for the human rights of their citizens.

Opinion piece
Carly Nyst's picture

The following is an English version of an article in the September issue of Cuestión de Derechos, written by Privacy International's Head of International Advocacy, Carly Nyst.

To read the whole article (in Spanish), please go here.

The Chinese government installs software that monitors and censors certain anti-government websites. Journalists and human rights defenders from Bahrain to Morocco have their phones tapped and their emails read by security services. Facebook takes down wall posts after States complains of “subversive material”. Google hands over user data to law enforcement authorities that includes IP addresses, location data and records of communications. The US government conducts mass surveillance of foreign phone and internet users.

Opinion piece
Carly Nyst's picture

The following is an excerpt from a guest article which appeared on openDemocracy, written by Privacy International's Head of Advocacy, Carly Nyst:

Forget blood diamonds. There's a new resource being mined and exploited in the developing world: data.

As development actors adopt new technologies at a rapid rate, data is fast becoming the development community's favourite cure-all. For its proponents, data has the potential to accelerate economic growth, catalyse innovation, and revolutionise the provision of development and humanitarian aid. 

Yet, much like other conflict resources, the data for development movement poses serious risks to the liberties of the same individuals who will purportedly benefit from its exploitation. By facilitating the generation, collection or analysis of information that is about individuals, 'data for development' may be enabling surveillance in the most insidious way.

For the full piece, please go here.
Carly Nyst's picture

What a difference a few months, and some intelligence agency leaks, make.

In early June an important report warning of increasing State surveillance was submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council. It was met with barely more than scant attention.  Days later, Edward Snowden’s leaks hit the front page of the Guardian, and woke the world up to how intelligence agencies in the US and UK are using questionable legal justifications to spy on their own citizens and the world.

Carly Nyst's picture

The Zimbabwean government extended its reach into the private lives of its citizens this week by promulgating a new law establishing a central database of information about all mobile telephone users in the country. The Statutory Instrument 142 of 2013 on Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations 2013, gazetted last Friday, raises new challenges to the already embattled rights to privacy and free expression in Zimbabwe, increasing the potential that the repressive state will spy on its citizens and further clamp down on free speech.

The approval of the Statutory Instrument clearly shows a disregard for the rights to privacy and free expression protected by the new Zimbabwean constitution. Mandatory SIM card registration eradicates the potential for anonymity of communications, enables location-tracking, and simplifies communications surveillance and interception.


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