BY Shubha Kayastha
The Election Commission of Nepal currently hosts the largest biometric database which includes demographic and biometric data of 17 million registered voters. Data such as name, age, gender, address, voting station, spouses’ names, parents’ names and voter ID numbers are publicly available on the Election Commission’s website without prior consent from the voters. These lists include sensitive information which can be used for targeted surveillance and stalking of marginalized and vulnerable communities. This poses a security threat and restricts them from exercising voting rights. When civil society and rights groups raised concerns, authorities did not remove the list. Instead, they argued there were no issues of privacy breaches because the data did not include voters’ photos, thumbprints, and phone numbers. In a country where data theft and hacking are quite common, the grave implications of a voter data breach may have been underestimated by the authorities.
During the recently held local election in May 2022, voters in Nepal received unsolicited SMSs, chat messages and emails from political parties and candidates as mobile numbers can easily be accessed by merging and analysing the dataset available. There was also a sudden growth in sponsored political advertisements on social media channels and the majority of the candidates are yet to provide detailed expenses from their political campaigns as mandated by the Election Commission.
SRHR, elections and data privacy
Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) have always been used as an agenda to attract voters in political campaigns by politicians, either through support or regression. Elections and their results have also been determinants of how issues around sexual and reproductive rights will shape – especially for women, queer individuals and other marginalized groups.
After Trump was elected in the US, the Global Gag Rule (GRR), an anti-abortion policy, was imposed in 2017 risking the lives of many around the world. It affected critical funding for services like contraception, maternal health, HIV prevention and treatment and programs on gender-based violence. While the GRR has been rescinded by the Biden-Harris administration since 2021, its impact on the health system globally will take longer to recover and regain. Similarly, Yoon Suk-yeol who won the Korea’s presidential election earlier this year used anti-feminist sentiments in his campaign which was argued to affect women’s right in the country including their SRHR.
In elections, personal data can be used to target voters and manipulate votes – publicly available data, when aggregated, can tell a lot about a person. There are risks of micro-targeting through online advertisements depending on ethnicity, gender and location. In India, Facebook allowed surrogate and ghost advertisers to secretly fund the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) – officially, the party spent 104 million rupees online advertising but ghost and surrogate advertisers, who did not disclose party affiliations, spent 58.3 million rupees to promote the BJP.
In addition, the internet’s algorithm-based ecosystems are polarizing people and their opinion. In light of online advertisements and data being used to attract and target voters, we need to be vigilant if they are also polarizing opinions of people on SRHR, paving the way for regression in SRHR policies, etc.
For election processes to be rights-based in the age of digitalization, data collected for voters’ lists should be used only for the said purpose with informed consent from the voters. People should be informed where their data will be stored, who will have access to that data, how long it will be retained, if it will be shared or sold, and about the potential risks and harms in the event of a data privacy breach. Political campaigns using data for micro-targeting voters are to be responsible, ethical and transparent.
As part of the advocacy we are doing at Body & Data in Nepal, we are appealing to the Election Commission to restrict access to the voter’s list. To ensure that voters can look only at their own details or to remove sensitive information such as gender identity, voting station address, parents/spouse names, etc.
In contexts where our SRHR are affected by elections, as activists, we need to be vigilant about how political campaigns use data about our bodies against us. SRHR activists have been advocating for years for data privacy to address the right to privacy of our bodies. We need to demand accountability not just from our governments but also from online platforms and companies facilitating data analysis for election campaigns.