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Communications of the ACM

Global computing

Global Data Justice

global data, illustration

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When the world's largest biometric population database—India's Aadhaar system—was challenged by activists the country's supreme court issued a historic judgment. It is not acceptable, the court said, to allow commercial firms to request details from population records gathered by government from citizens for purposes of providing representation and care. The court's logic was important because this database had, for a long time, been becoming a point of contact between firms that wanted to conduct ID and credit checks, and government records of who was poor, who was vulnerable, and who was on which type of welfare program. The court also, however, said that this problem of public-private function creep was not sufficiently bad to outweigh the potential good a national population database could do for the poor. Many people, they said, were being cheated out of welfare entitlements because they had no official registration, and this was more unfair than the monetization of their official records.

This judgment epitomizes the problem of global data justice. The databases and analytics that allow previously invisible populations to be seen and represented by authorities, and which make poverty and disadvantage harder to ignore, are a powerful tool for the marginalized and vulnerable to claim their rights and entitlements, and to demand fair representation.2 This is the claim the United Nations is making5 in relation to new sources of data such as cellphone location records and social media content: if the right authorities can use them in the right way, they can shine a light on need and deprivation, and can help evaluate progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. If data technologies are used in a good cause, they confer unprecedented power to make the world a fairer place.


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