Civil society organisers rely on personal data and data-driven tactics to support individuals and groups to take part in civil society and informal politics. There are various functions in which organisers may use personal data, such as:
While the collection of personal data can be essential to some elements of their work, organisers have to navigate various concerns. First and foremost, privacy and the consequent security of data is a concern to civil society. Civil society organisers may collect information about individuals’ interests and participation in civil society such as what emails they read, what topics are popular on social media and what demonstrations people are turning up to. This political information is at particular risk of surveillance and subsequent unwanted interference from national security agencies or other external groups.
Moreover, the routine collection and analysis of personal data may mean at times that civil society organisations end up contributing to the surveillance systems that they also, often, criticise. There are concerns regarding the relationship between the companies that produce and host the data-driven tools, such as Facebook and Google, and the companies that produce national and private surveillance programs. Furthermore, the tools and platforms that organisations rely upon come with certain values embedded in them, such as seeking profit and reducing engagements to simplistic recordable actions such as likes and retweets. These values can counteract the long-term social change which civil society organisers want for the society they are involved in now and the one they want to create for the future.
Organisations and critics have also called into question the effectiveness of data-driven methods. Not only are organisations concerned as to whether they have the technical expertise to understand and use the vast quantities of personal data available to them, but criticisms of ‘big data’ and surrounding data-driven practices focus on the lack of accuracy of data and challenge the so-called neutrality that the technical processes promise. Facebook Ads’ lookalike audiences are created by processes that are obscure and may not represent the audience the organiser was actually hoping to reach. The collection of tweets containing a certain protest’s hashtag can be made up of bots and not represent the voices of individuals taking their time to engage on the matter. The data may not only include accidental errors or mistakes, but also built-in biases which affect how individuals are profiled and what information they are targeted with.
Advice for anyone working with personal data is limited for the most part to legal advice from policies such as GDPR and technical advice from those already skilled at working with databases. This may be helpful from the perspective of protecting the bare minimum of data, but it does not help with making decisions on what data to collect, what can be done with it or what impact the data-driven methods might have on the systems and society that civil society organisers are contributing to.
If you’re an organiser and you’re motivated to examine how you are using other people’s personal data – and how you can take into account the concerns and risks involved – check out The Organiser’s Activity Book, a series of playful activities that support the process of examining the data you collect and create and making decisions about how to use it. And stay tuned in for our upcoming accompanying step-by-step guide for how to create a personalised data policy.
29th April 2021.
Dr. Amber Macintyre is a project lead at Tactical Tech, facilitating workshops and researching the use of personal data in formal and informal political processes.