Data Baggage, Travel and Activism

There are increasing concerns worldwide about the constraints facing civil society organisations, grassroots groups and activists, this text reflects on data and technology as tools or mediums that can be moulded or stretched for oppositional purposes at times and to different extents of invasiveness.

Introduction to Data and Travel

In most cases, travelling is integral to solidarity efforts, sharing skills and information, building networks and engaging in the debate or the decision-making process. Travel is also necessary for building skills and experience. But along the way, every stage of travelling entails relinquishing an immense amount of data that is either required by governments or by companies that provide travel-related services, or that can be automatically generated in the background. All that data is collected, stored, analysed and shared, contributing to political profiling that can be quite revealing about the individual traveller. Those profiles, which are often difficult to access, can be used to restrict an individual's mobility, or it can have serious implications, such as: the inability to access certain countries, smear campaigns, or even legal repercussions or restricted access to jobs in the future. All of these factors affect the space for political participation and civic engagement. Understanding the data-backstage of airports, embassies and booking agencies is the first step in this series.

For many, travelling is an exhausting exercise. Making sure we have the right things. Passport: check. Visa: check. Plane ticket: check. Travel insurance: check. Luggage weight: check. Not to mention, the waiting in lines, possible delays, and jet lag. For others, like civil society organisations (CSOs), grassroots groups, activists and concerned individuals 1 the process can be much more complicated.

Being denied participation in an event, whether it is a workshop or a conference, restricts access to “the table,” thereby shrinking the space around civil society and grassroots political actors. Nowadays, stopping activists, human rights lawyers and journalists at airports is more common than it should be. The Egyptian independent information platform Daftar Ahwal documented 554 cases of politically-motivated entry bans and travel bans imposed by Egyptian authorities in airports in the period between 2011 and 2016. Out of those examined, 56 travel bans were issued pending a judicial order and later arrest; 12 individuals were banned from travel based on a judicial order but no arrest; and 120 people were banned from travelling with no judicial order issued at all. When it comes to entering the country, there were 259 entry bans registered; 83 cases reported difficulty upon arrival; and there were 15 cases of arrest upon entry.

Though it was lifted last year, China had imposed a 10-year travel ban on the famous “Feminist Five” who were arrested in 2015 for distributing stickers about sexual harassment.2 In 2014, Russian authorities banned indigenous rights activists from travelling to the US to attend the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. In 2017, Omani authorities banned the family of Mohammed al Fazari, a blogger and civil rights defender. Fazari’s wife, his three-year-old daughter and his one-year-old son were stopped at the airport on their way to join Fazari in the UK where he had sought asylum.

The previous cases, though more common than one would think, could be seen as extreme situations. On the other hand, governments can apply restrictions on entry (or exit) for activists, journalists and artists to attend a conference or an event if they are critical of their policies. This was seen repeatedly during G8, G20 and IMF protests, where activists and civil society actors were denied entry to the host countries. During the WTO meeting in Buenos Aires in December 2017, over 60 activists, NGO officials and journalists who had been accredited by the host organisation had their credentials revoked by the government. Ecuador-based activist and British journalist Sally Burch, who directs the Latin American Information Agency, was refused entry as she arrived at the airport. Same for Petter Titland, head of the Norwegian NGO Attac Norge, who was denied entry and sent to Brazil. In a statement responding to the incident, Argentina’s foreign ministry claimed that some attendees who had their accreditations revoked had made “explicit calls for manifestations of violence through social media.” The case has garnered international attention from NGOs and embassies alike expressing concern over the decisions of the Argentinian government to block NGO officials and journalists from attending. There are concerns that this was a testing ground for future international meetings and summits in Argentina.

But the issue goes beyond banning an individual or a group from travelling. Travelling in itself can be instrumentalised as a way to harvest further data from a certain individual of interest. The contacts made during a trip, or the events attended and the documents obtained, can be of interest for a security apparatus. Journalists and researchers could be a prime target for such attacks. The case of David Miranda, the partner of high-profile journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was detained in London on his way back from a meeting with filmmaker Laura Poitras is a good example of detention by association. Instead of stopping activists on their way to a meeting, stopping them after they have concluded their work could be more tempting for governments to intercept any possible data in their possession. On the other hand, in Egypt for example, visiting a country or the possession of a visa to a country were used to slander and discredit human rights defenders as having received training by “foreign powers” to destabilise the country. In certain cases this amounted to arrest, interrogation and a damaging media campaign.

Though surveillance and profiling during travels can vary depending on the person, the background of the person, the countries involved, and the objectives of the trip, there are common threads that can help us draw a considerable amount of the picture. To that end, we broke down a scenario of travelling to a conference, and we will zoom in on the different stages of it from a data-collection perspective.


1 In this text and across the project, we use “civil society organisations (CSOs), grassroots groups, activists and concerned individuals” as an umbrella term that includes Human Rights Defenders; politically involved journalists, lawyers and artists; unions and NGOs, among others.

2 Human Rights Watch China: Drop All Charges Against Feminist Activists