New mapping initiative shows exposure of Brazilian education to “surveillance capitalism”

The Educação Vigiada (Education Under Surveillance) project shows that 65% of public universities and state education offices are exposed to “surveillance capitalism”. The project calls attention to the lack of transparency and regulation in public-private relations in technological platforms and services, compromising users’ rights such as privacy and the protection of personal data. Official launch with live transmission will take place on March 26th.

See this post in Portuguese.

As universities and school systems suspended classes, in a collective effort to contribute to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, a large number of tech companies and platforms begin offering tools for distance education as a way to maintain educational activities. Many of them provided ‘free’ services to encourage use of their systems and services.

But the battle for the attention of educators and managers of education institutions in Brazil is not new. Mapping carried out by two research centers at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) and the Open Education Initiative (UNESCO Chair in Distance Education at the University of Brasilia (UnB) together with the Educadigital Institute) reveals that 65% of public universities and state offices of education are exposed to so-called “surveillance capitalism,” a term used to designate business models based on the extensive extraction of personal data by algorithms and artificial intelligence techniques in order to obtain predictions about user behavior, using this information to offer and sell products and services.

This mapping initiative aims to draw attention to the lack of regulation of partnerships established by public education with commercial organizations, which compromise the right to privacy and personal data protection of citizens, particularly children and adolescents. “These partnerships do not involve the expenditure of financial resources by the public administration. However, there is a hidden value extracted from the collection of our data and metadata,” explains Professor Tel Amiel, of the University of Brasilia and coordinator of the UNESCO Chair in Distance Education.

Acts of solidarity in moments of crisis are welcome. But one must question the responsibility of public entities in accepting services for “free” without an analysis of the context and the trade-offs involved. The issue of surveillance began to gain prominence in the news stating with the revelations of former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) officer Edward Snowden, showing that the U.S. government maintained a mass espionage program of its citizens, and authorities in other countries.

Recent movies like “The Great Hack” and a film about Snowden’s story have made clear the way in which personal data collected persistently and extensively is the profit-making engine of the planet’s most famous technology corporations, like Google and Facebook. “Since we can’t find information on how these partnerships take place within the public administration, neither through government nor through companies, we created a program to access the e-mail server of educational institutions and know whether the servers are allocated to external addresses of companies, or under the control of the educational institutions themselves,” explained Professor Leonardo Cruz, of the Amazonian Laboratory for Socio-Technical Studies at UFPA and researcher of the Latin American Network of Studies on Surveillance, Technology and Society (LAVITS Network).

Educação Vigiada is part of a project entitled “Surveillance Capitalism and Brazilian Public Education” which aims to alert society to the lack of transparency in the terms accepted by public entities regaridng free services offered by these companies. Professor Filipe Saraiva, of the Free Software Competence Center (CCSL) at UFPA, the current scenario that disincentives the financing of public education and promoted a reduction to university budgets, the institutions simply adhere to ‘free’ products and push them onto the educational community from a perspective of ‘innovation’ and ‘quality’. “But we must be cautious,” he says. “In their eagerness to solve immediate and urgent problems, managers and teachers often fail to see that much of the inability of institutions to respond to the demands of systems and services is due to the scrapping of structures and support teams in favor of ‘free’ external solutions.

The executive director of the Educadigital Institute, Priscila Gonsales, recalls that in the case of basic education, the problem is even greater because it involves children and adolescents. “In August, the General Law on Personal Data Protection (LGPD) comes into force, which brings a specific article on data protection for this group, so schools need to rethink their role in relation to the choices they make, as well as promoting professional development for teachers and teaching students on the importance of this issue.”

According to researchers involved in the initiative, once public-private partnerships are established and service migrations are made, such as institutional e-mails, it is very difficult for institutions and networks to reverse their dependency on these new systems.

Educação Vigiada received support from the Chilean organization Derechos Digitales, through the Rapid Response Fund, and presents updated research data, in addition to additional information and recommendations for different actors in the school community (managers, teachers, parents, and students). Learn more at: www.educacaovigiada.org.br

Follow the launch of the project live (in Portuguese). Leave your email in this link to be notified!