Brazil, digital colony

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By SERGIO AMADEU DA SILVEIRA*

Tech corporations exploit human experience as free raw material. They treat behavioral data as their property, in a dynamic of usurpation.

On May 27, 2020, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, MCTIC, signed an agreement with the US company Cisco with the alleged aim of accelerating the so-called digital transformation in Brazil. Without consulting universities, research institutes, or specialists in the field, the current government announced that “Cisco will work together with MCTIC in the development of an intelligent digital platform to support the monitoring, management and definition of public policies in the country”. Disregarding the knowledge accumulated in public policies and digital technologies in Brazilian institutions, the Bolsonaro government preferred to accelerate our transformation into a digital colony.

It is possible to observe, during the pandemic, the expansion of the presence of corporations and digital platforms that profit by extracting and manipulating personal data obtained in the collection of digital traces and information on the behavior of users of their services and products. The Brazilian authorities acted as if there was no other way except to hand over our population's data to companies that seek to convert the flows of our lives into a torrent of data to be processed. These corporations also called big techs, or digital platforms, exercise their planetary power by extracting, storing and manipulating personal data.

While the economic activity measured by the GDP of the 37 countries that make up the OECD fell by 0,8% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to 2019 and the Brazilian GDP fell by 0,3% compared to the same period of the previous year, the large corporations of technology that live mainly from the collection, storage and processing of personal data, increased their sales. They converted the pandemic into a moment of business expansion. The humanitarian and health crisis has expanded the scenario for obtaining more information from the populations of the planet.

the profits of Facebook in the first quarter of 2020 increased by 102% compared to the same period of the previous year. Revenue from Zuckerberg's company was US$ 17,7 billion in the first three months of this year, 18% higher than the same period in 2019. Facebook owns the largest online relationship network on the planet, as well as Instagram and WhatsApp. In the pandemic, the three products exceeded three billion users.

O Google Meet announced that it had three million new users a day, as the pandemic progressed across continents. The group A – controller of Google, Youtube and other technology companies – earned US$ 42,1 billion in the first three months of 2020, 13% higher than the similar period of the previous year. O Google Cloud and his G Suite advanced in the corporate market. The Alphabet group's cloud billing alone increased by 52% to US$2,8 billion.

Already Microsoft increased its revenues in the period by 13,6% compared to the first quarter of the previous year, reaching US$ 33 billion. Cloud computing services from Microsoft earned US$ 10,9 billion pulled by the platform Azure which increased its revenue by 59%. To compete in the communication tools market, Microsoft presented the teams which advanced in the pandemic and surpassed 75 million users.

Company Amazon earned in the first quarter of 2020 the amount of US$ 75 billion, growing 26% compared to the same period last year. Despite rising logistics and security costs during the pandemic, Jeff Bezos' company still made a net profit of $2,5 billion. Your named cloud services Amazon Web Services (AWS) leads the cloud computing market.

Note that large technology corporations act as new colonizers. They use their technological capacity to offer free or very low cost devices and interfaces to retain entire populations to their data extraction infrastructures. On digital platforms, more than “improving our experience”, a behavioral surplus is consolidated in data that is extracted as if it were natural resources. However, data depends on projects created to convert a given action into something that can be quantified. Once invented, devices for collecting a certain metric – such as the number of my friends in a social network, my “likes”, the exact time I watch a web page or a profile on a social network – generate data that is captured and stored by corporations.

Researcher Shoshana Zuboff stated that technology corporations began to claim the right to exploit human experience as free raw material, to claim the right to translate our actions into behavioral data, to claim the possibility of storing data about people, many times without their knowledge, and to exercise ownership over the collected data and the results of its processing and analysis, as well as the future knowledge derived from this usurpation dynamic. Zuboff called this process “surveillance capitalism”. I believe that it would be better characterized as a process of extraction and concentration of wealth in gigantic technological corporations headquartered in a few capitalist countries in a phase of deep neoliberalism that became neocolonial. A new colonization of life based on its control by data.

Inspired by decolonial and postcolonial theories, mainly from Latin America, researchers Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias worked on the concept of data colonialism to define an emerging order that aims at the appropriation of human life from the continuous extraction of quantified information from each person for profit. Paola Ricaurte, on the other hand, denounces that data-centered epistemologies are expressions of the coloniality of power that submits ways of knowing to market-oriented epistemologies. O Big Data becomes the basis of knowledge considered indispensable and the machine learning the irrefutable way to extract patterns and formulate predictions.

Paola Ricaurte warns us that the epistemology of this immense datafication is an evolution of the positivist paradigm that is based on three assumptions. The first is that data reflect reality, therefore, they are expressions of truth. The second is the assumption that analyzing this data can generate extremely valuable and completely accurate knowledge. Against data, there are no arguments. The third assumption indicates that data analysis allows for better decisions about the world. I believe there is a fourth assumption, perhaps a direct result of the first, which is the naturalization of data. These assumptions are at the basis of what the researcher Van Dijck called “dataism”, an almost religious belief that data speak for reality.

Neoliberalism, currently in its deepest and most dangerous phase for democracy, favors the expansion of the dataified economy, the market for personal data and competition from large data collection platforms. This process is consolidating itself in the face of the uncritical and careless contentment of people marveling at the devices and technological interfaces that, like trinkets, keep different social segments loyal to data extraction platforms. These companies don't come here to take brazilwood or precious metals, they take personal data that will be processed and sold in samples for commercial and political marketing. More than that, personal data feed the data structures of machine learning and other artificial intelligence models with the aim of predicting our actions.

Concretely, if data is “the oil of the XNUMXst century”, we are being usurped. Obviously, data are not natural resources, but in the paradigm of the new colonialism they are natural expressions of reality and, like any natural resource in capitalism, it is privately priced and appropriated. Who can extract and appropriate the data available there? Obviously, the big platforms that offer us their interfaces like a fisherman offering a bait on a hook.

Most Brazilian universities have already stopped preserving the data of their professors, researchers, students and technicians. The Vigiada Education initiative – organized by the Open Education Initiative (partnership between the UNESCO Chair in EaD Education at UnB and the EducaDigital Institute), and by the Amazonian Laboratory of Sociotechnical Studies and the Free Software Competence Center, both from UFPA – found that 70 % of public universities and state departments of education in Brazil host a considerable part of their data on large platforms such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon.

Not being able to take care of crucial data for the country's educational public policies seems to be seen as a positive factor by the neocolonial mentality. MEC published on March 23, 2020, a Monday, at 14:38 pm, on its portal, the following news: Microsoft highlights Sisu in cloud as CASE​ Of success. The article hailed the fact that the MEC had migrated the Unified Selection System (Sisu) with data on the academic performance of students who sought vacancies in Brazilian universities to “the cloud of the technology multinational to increase access capacity”. With a direct link to the Microsoft website, MEC delivered data from Brazilian students to the platform Microsoft Azure. A good part of this data was probably sent to servers installed in data centers in the United States.

The text published on the Ministry of Education website praised migration as a self-praise, but coming from a release from Microsoft that said: “MEC took into account the need for investment in infrastructure to support a system that receives a huge volume of accesses in just 12 days a year”. In this way, to avoid idleness, to reduce costs, Weintraub delivered the data of 1.795.211 students to those who have the capacity and good price to support the access of seven thousand subscribers per minute. The digital colony does not have the technology of the matrix and that is why it delivers its raw material in exchange for processed material. In no time, the MEC thought of setting up a structure that would overcome idleness by hosting the university databases that are being delivered to the North American platforms.

But the digital colony has plenty of examples of data extraction practiced by platforms in everyday life. Here I will point out just one more. The pandemic again opens the door to timely action by platforms in search of data. The government of São Paulo, excited about the large platforms, decided to register homeless people with an application that will use the platform “free of charge” Power Apps, “donated” by Microsoft. It allows the identification of people through a QR Code which will be printed on a PVC card and then scanned when the homeless person accesses the meal distribution units.

Those who insert the data into the Microsoft platform are the São Paulo City Hall field agents. According to the corporation, all data will be “stored and managed in the Dynamics 365, Microsoft's cloud-based suite of business applications. With this action, Microsoft believes it is accrediting itself to strengthen organizations in the fight against the new coronavirus.

Obviously it will also start the implementation of its products Power Apps, Power automat, Power Apps portals, Dynamics 365 and Power Virtual Agents for clients in healthcare, education, NGOs and government. The generosity is also the opportunity to expand its data collection and storage services in a scenario of fierce competition not only with Google and Amazon, but also with the Chinese companies that are coming.

Experience and the human condition have become raw material to be exploited by platforms that can use data not only from the middle classes, but also from the impoverished masses to train their machine learning algorithms. It is impressive that the more neoliberalism orders the State to reduce costs, the more the extraction of data from impoverished countries to its headquarters advances. Today's leaders in Brazil do everything to ensure full conditions for data extraction here in the colony.

SERPRO, a public information technology company, created to protect the Federal Revenue's strategic information, during the Bolsonaro government, celebrates a contract that places it as a partner and reseller of spaces in the cloud of Amazon Web Services, Inc.. Even knowing the existence of Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), in the United States, which obliges telecommunications equipment manufacturers to implement means in their products for access by North American intelligence agencies to communications carried out, MCTIC signs a partnership with Cisco. No questioning is performed. The colonized behaves as expected by the colonizer. Brazil, a great digital colony.

*Sergio Amadeu da Silveira is a professor at the Federal University of ABC. PhD in Political Science and researcher of digital networks and information technologies.

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