Chupadados: project for Latin America shows how technologies can steal personal information

“We are in an abusive relationship with our tech gadgets, and we believe they may be possessed by the Chupadados.” This is how the Chupadados project, launched in December 2016, aims to record, through texts and infographics, how technological equipment and services are used in Latin America to collect, store and even sell personal data - often without knowledge of the users.

The project is a collaboration of journalists and researchers in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Colombia and wants to produce content on privacy, surveillance digital rights in the region. The initiative is organized by Coding Rights, a Think-and-Do tank led by women and born in Brazil, which seeks to advance the strengthening of human rights in the digital world.

The Chupadados platform, in Spanish and Portuguese, has already published texts about Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and soon, will have content about Colombia and Mexico. To produce its stories, Chupadados collaborates with several organizations in Latin America, like Datalabe, Derechos Digitales, Idec, Karisma, Privacy International and Tactical Tech Collective.

Unlike other Coding Rights projects, such as Oficina Antivigilância, which is more technical and targeted at digital rights activists and entities, Chupadados wants to attract the broader public to the debate on privacy and surveillance in the digital environment.

For this reason, the project was named Chupadados. A play on words inspired by the Chupacabra, a popular figure in Latin America and a contemporary legend. Like the creature, which supposedly sucks the blood of animals, the Chupadados is “an entity that took over our technological devices” to suck up personal data, according to one of the founders of the project, Joana Varon.

In addition to the name, the language and visual identity of the platform were also created in an attempt to attract common technology users.

“We have tried to treat images in a way that is different from the imagery of surveillance and privacy, which is always a camera, a padlock, an eye. We have made more colorful images that refer back to people. We want to get out of the bubble of civil society and digital rights advocates to reach out to consumers, parents who want to think about how to protect children who browse the internet, for example,” Varon told the Knight Center.

According to her, for most people, privacy in the digital environment is a distant, vague and abstract issue - they do not realize the risks and how surveillance can affect their lives. Thus, the platform seeks to address, in a simple and thought-provoking way, how everyday technologies can collect and process personal data and how the user can protect himself. The stories are divided into four categories: the Chupadados in your city, in your pocket, on your body and in your house.

In the case of urban surveillance, Varon explained how high crime in Latin America adds yet another challenge for the defense of digital rights.

“As there is a greater concern for violence, the surveillance discourse has a heavy weight and ends up leading people to think that they should abdicate privacy supposedly as a way to bring security. But the truth is that privacy and security are not opposed concepts, on the contrary, they can and should go together,” Varon said.

One of the articles by Chupadados is about the advancement of surveillance cameras in Argentina and how the mechanism is used as an argument for getting votes in the elections. The text also highlights that there is no proven relationship between security and surveillance, meaning that cities with more cameras are not always less crime-ridden.

Another topic addressed by the project, for example, is the collection of data by health applications. One of the texts explains how women share detailed and intimate information, such as how often they have sex, bodily symptoms and daily emotions, with menstrual cycle control applications.

The article, titles “Menstruapps - How to turn your menstruation into cash (for others)?,” tells how such data can be sold to advertisers, governments, clinics, telephone operators and even credit bureaus. The text also shows which applications are safer and how to protect yourself.

Chupadados explains that simple activities such as browsing the internet, using transport cards and doing banking transactions generate a huge amount of data. This information, the platform warns, can be used to improve policies and services, but misuse of data “can expose, segregate and threaten individuals.”

“In the U.S., data can be a determining factor for a person to get credit, insurance, a new job or a place in school. This often results in segregation and maintenance of power asymmetries. The objective of this project is to show how this happens in Latin America,” said Varon, a graduate in Law and International Relations.

Varon stated that the data form user profiles, which determine what kind of information and products the person will have access to in the digital world. “It can shape the way we see the world without our noticing. We are being manipulated with our own data,” she said.

It is important for the platform to increase awareness of the users in relation to the use of technology.

“You need to know how to manage your applications, to change settings. You do not need to be a hacker or a geek to know how to change settings or use communications protection tools that are increasingly accessible,” Varon said.

Raising public awareness is also relevant for society to cover and pressure authorities to implement public policies and legislation on the subject. “Brazil is one of the few countries in Latin America that does not have a personal data protection law. Other countries in the region have laws, but the protection body is not independent, so there are problems with applying the rules,” she said.

Team and collaboration with journalists

In addition to Varon, the team at Chupadados has Natasha Felizi, who also founded the project. Both work for Coding Rights, which is headquarters in Rio de Janeiro: Varon is the organization’s executive director and Felizi, with a Master of Arts, is a project manager.

Although the site was launched in December 2016, Felizi and Varon have been working on the design and development of the project since the end of 2015, when the platform was funded by Open Society Foundations - which also supports Coding Rights.

In the same year, Chupadados organized a workshop in Buenos Aires with journalists covering surveillance, a screenwriter and digital rights organizations from Chile, Argentina and Mexico. The workshop served to define and organize the four thematic concerns in addition to the first series of stories.

According to Varon, the texts were prepared by journalists and researchers, in partnership with a team of legal advisors, and edited by Chupadados. “The project is open to contributions, which can be paid, from Latin American journalists,” she said.

The project also wants to join media outlets for content publishing. “The menstruapps story came out on the Brazilian news site Nexo, for example. We want to reach a wider audience, through other channels, like the traditional press,” Varon said.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.