Even as Indigenous communities find increasingly helpful uses for digital technology, many worry that outside interests could take over their data and profit from it, much like colonial powers plundered their physical homelands. But now some Indigenous groups are reclaiming control by developing their own data protection technologies—work that demonstrates how ordinary people have the power to sidestep the tech companies and data brokers who hold and sell the most intimate details of their identities, lives and cultures.
When governments, academic institutions or other external organizations gather information from Indigenous communities, they can withhold access to it or use it for other purposes without the consent of these communities.
“The threats of data colonialism are real,” says Tahu Kukutai, a professor at New Zealand’s University of Waikato and a founding member of Te Mana Raraunga, the Māori Data Sovereignty Network. “They’re a continuation of old processes of extraction and exploitation of our land—the same is being done to our information.”
To shore up their defenses, some Indigenous groups are developing new privacy-first storage systems that give users control and agency over all aspects of this information: what is collected and by whom, where it’s stored, how it’s used and, crucially, who has access to it.
Storing data in a user’s device—rather than in the cloud or in centralized servers controlled by a tech company—is an essential privacy feature of these technologies. Rudo Kemper is founder of Terrastories, a free and open-source app co-created with Indigenous communities to map their land and share stories about it. He recalls a community in Guyana that was emphatic about having an offline, on-premise installation of the Terrastories app. To members of this group, the issue was more than just the lack of Internet access in the remote region where they live. “To them, the idea of data existing in the cloud is almost like the knowledge is leaving the territory because it’s not physically present,” Kemper says.