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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

Carly Nyst's picture

In a landmark report, the United Nations today has broken its long-held silence about the threat that State surveillance poses to the enjoyment of the right to privacy.

The report is clear: State surveillance of communications is ubiquitous, and such surveillance severely undermines citizens’ ability to enjoy a private life, freely express themselves and enjoy their other fundamental human rights. Presented today at the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva, the report marks the first time the UN has emphasised the centrality of the right to privacy to democratic principles and the free flow of speech and ideas.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013 - 14:30

Privacy International, with the support of the Association for Progressive Communications and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will be hosting a side-event to the Human Rights Council on State surveillance and human rights, to discuss issues raised in the upcoming report of the UN Special Rapporteur of freedom of opinion and expression.

RSVP necessary?: 
Opinion piece
Kevin Donovan's picture

Below is an excerpt of an article that recently appeared on Slate, written by our partner Kevin Donovon, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, and Carly Nyst, Head of International Advocacy at Privacy International:

"Move over, mobile phones. There’s a new technological fix for poverty: biometric identification. Speaking at the World Bank on April 24, Nandan Nilekani, director of India’s universal identification scheme, promised that the project will be “transformational.” It “uses the most sophisticated technology … to solve the most basic of development challenges.” The massive ambition, known as Aadhaar, aims to capture fingerprints, photographs, and iris scans of 1.2 billion residents, with the assumption that a national identification program will be a key ingredient to “empower poor and underprivileged residents.” The World Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, effusively summed up the promise as “just stunning.”

In the media
Public Service Europe
Publication date: 
Original story link: 

The latest attempt by the British government to control and monitor online communications is arguably the most frightening to date and could be copied by authoritarian regimes - warns Privacy International.

Carly Nyst's picture

Are you looking to join a small charity that punches above its weight in holding governments and corporations to account? We're seeking a Research Officer to play a key role in the Privacy in the Developing World programme, and in PI's regional and international human rights advocacy. If you're passionate about privacy issues, have extensive experience in the human rights or development sectors, and a desire to work on meaningful projects at the cutting edge of human rights and technology, check out the job description and person specification. Applications are due by 6pm on Tuesday 7 May 2013.

Carly Nyst's picture

Privacy International this week submitted stakeholder reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council1 about the human rights records of China, Senegal and Mexico. The reports, prepared in preparation with our partners in the respective countries, analyse the extent to which the right to privacy is respected and protected, and detail instances of privacy violations.

Nigel Waters's picture


Nigel Waters attended the APEC DPS meeting in Jakarta as an invited guest. He has previously either formally represented Privacy International or been a part of the Australian delegation. He continues to bring a critical civil society perspective to bear on the APEC privacy work.

The APEC Cross Border Privacy Rules (CBPR) system has moved one step closer to full operation with the acceptance in January 2013 of Mexico as the second participating economy. The United States was accepted in July 2012, and Japan has declared its intention to apply in 2013, with other economies to follow.


Privacy has truly become an issue of global resonance.  A quick glance at policy agendas in countries around the world shows that privacy and surveillance issues are increasingly important.  The challenge, however, is improving the ability of governments and policy stakeholders to engage in a policy debate that is informed about the dangers of surveillance and the importance of protecting privacy.  This is the primary objective of our Privacy in the Developing World programme.

In this report, we summarise our partner’s research into privacy in developing countries across Asia. The experiences of privacy in these countries are illustrative of the many opportunities for and challenges to the advancement of privacy, not only the developing world but across the world.

Carly Nyst's picture

One of the first things that strikes you about the chaotic East African metropolises of Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe is the blanket of adverts for mobile phone companies that covers them, from the walls of the immigration hall at Harare airport, to the rickety shacks that line the dusty streets of Kampala. Where official signage is unavailable, DIY versions are painted onto the roofs and walls of houses and small businesses. Stores selling mobile phones are rarely more than a few short steps away, as are the clumps of cell towers that stand tall above throngs of people talking, texting and transferring money on their mobile devices. The message is clear: mobile telephony has arrived in Africa, and everyone wants - and can have - a piece of it. But at what price?

Bytes 4 All's picture

Modern information and communications technologies are now seamlessly integrated into our daily lives. Internet-based communications are no longer a luxury, but rather a necessity, for people across the globe. This is particularly the case in developing countries where, as well as helping individuals communicate, learn and connect, technologies play a vital role in advancing fundamental human rights and fuelling social progress.
It is therefore hardly surprising that ICTs are increasingly being cast as threats by ideologically authoritarian governments and political establishments, which are stepping up censorship and surveillance on digital communications in pursuit of control and oppressive ideals. Pakistan provides us with a disturbing example of such trends.


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