Data Justice in Mexico's Multiveillant Society: How big data is reshaping the struggle for human rights and political freedoms

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology


On June 19th, 2017, the New York Times uncovered how the Mexican government was deploying proprietary spyware -(ostensibly) licensed to combat organised crime and terrorism- to conduct surveillance on human rights defenders, critical journalists and political opponents. This exposé was possible via the unique collaboration of 'Citizen Lab' in Canada, WikiLeaks Mexico, and a network of NGOs that tracked the software supplied by the Israeli NSO Group to Mexican intelligence agents. Inspired by this example of sousveillance-the dataveillance from below-we will examine and experiment with new forms of data justice: understood as the continuous effort to use the wealth of available data to promote personal and collective freedoms, taking into account the particular forms of oppression and inequality that shape our world. In the multiveillant society surveillance is run by the intelligence community, by corrupt federal/local authorities, as well as blurred power-crime connections to cartels and organised crime, but also by citizens and NGOs searching for justice and security. Thus, the multiveillant society must also be recognised as including the counter-surveillance innovations and the sites of resistance that have been activated by those targeted.

Mexico draws constant critical attention for its high-levels of crime and weak rule-of-law: more than 160,000 deaths due to violence; some 30,000-people estimated to have been 'disappeared'; kidnappings estimated to run into tens of thousands of victims every year; and, one of the world's worst records for protection of journalists and human rights defenders. However, what has not yet received significant attention, or academic scrutiny is Mexico's emergence as a laboratory for new forms of surveillance (and its resistance). The Mexican scenario fosters a unique opportunity to understand contemporary dilemmas born from the interaction between big data, freedom (of speech, movement, and assembly), and authoritarian and criminal impulses (state and non-state).

Our project will create a theory/methods package to engage with multiveillance and data justice, through ethnographic research, mobile apps, participatory action research and big-data workshops. Tailored to a politico-legal scenario where the absence of regulation, enforcement and security are the norm; a setting where configurations of data-governance challenge state-corporate efforts of mass dataveillance, we aim to create the first data justice open source tool. Through a deep ethnographic understanding of Mexico's multiveillant society we will make possible new collective forms of data-sharing, data-gathering and data-verification, that so far have only been available to well-funded organisations. In the face of this challenge we want to take advantage of connectedness and social media sharing. To begin with, we will share the data-practices of human rights defenders through an interactive digital handbook that will guide visitors to tools, infographics, apps and videos to stay digitally safe online, but also to engage with the logics and algorithms behind big data and to spot and recognise tactics of disinformation in social media. This we think will enhance personal data-justice. In the collective front we will develop The Govern-app that will tackle the challenges posed by large scale organisation, grass-root security and evidence gathering of human rights violations, in scenarios in which data sharing is permeated by distrust. T he govern-app would allow users to quickly decide what issues to tackle, what are the types of voting and decision making they need, and the types of access, encryption and authority each of the users involved in the creation of the shared digital platform in each scenario will enjoy.

In short, we will co-produce new avenues to practice, to improve and to assert data justice in Mexico, and hopefully (through the impact of our research) in other scenarios around the world.

Planned Impact

Participants from victims' groups and NGOs will directly benefit from organised training sessions and knowledge-exchange activities integral to our participatory research. Not only will his have short-term impacts through trainings, but they will also shape long-term impact strategy through ongoing feedback and contribute to the co-production of outputs and their dissemination. This latter point is vital to our impact strategy of building Mexican capacity and strengthening civil society engagement with data justice. Even though most of the content of the handbook will be downloadable, not least via the project website, a printed outlet will be distributed during the final workshop and during training sessions, for those less familiar and digitally savvy. Both our online presence and the mouth to mouth training and tool co-design will help us harness our networks of interested organisations -participating NGOs and victims' groups, local human rights councils across Mexico, civic activists and religious groups- to ensure that resources developed from this project, e.g. govern-app, downloadable material and hard-copies of impact materials, reach the widest possible range of local beneficiaries - especially those in more isolated communities in need of greater data literacy and digital assistance.

The project bilingual website will mirror the template that has been effectively used in the PI and PDRA's project on the disappeared in Mexico. Parallel websites will maximise the impacts of these complementary projects and also help to forge links across citizen-led action on public security issues in Mexico. The project website will host: the data-justice toolkit, links to the govern-app, an ABC of how to track and uncover a bot campaign to drown political dissent in social media, and digital security advice as well as counter-kidnapping resources. We will periodically update our research briefings; project outputs; media information; and, update the topic in the discussion forum. It will be the key portal for sharing our citizen-led approach; its scope for impact extending beyond Mexico to wider regional/international users. Our apps will be another important vehicle for dissemination and uptake as they will be created since the very beginning by its final users and promoters.

It is also important to note key strengths within the research team. Notably, the PI and PDRA's transformative work on citizen-led forensics and the disappeared in Mexico has garnered wide- ranging policy and media attention, achieving real societal impact. His established connections are further enhanced by the links of Mexican Project Partner, Gobernanza Forense Ciudadana, to civic- action/victims' groups. Drawing on the support of the Mexican collaborator, UNAM (Mexico's most prestigious university), and the local networks and extensive experience of the Mexican team of collaborators, we are well-placed to deliver innovative solutions that will contribute to the strengthening of Mexican civil society. At the transnational level, we also draw upon the COI links to transnational security providers and various INGOs; as well as his current work with the Latin American and transborder civic-action networks working in the US-Mexico border and other parts of Latin America (Brazil and Colombia) and Europe (Portugal).


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Cruz-Santiago A (2021) Biorecuperation, the epidemic of violence and COVID-19 in Mexico in Human Remains and Violence

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Schwartz Marin E (2018) Antigone's forensic DNA database: Forensic technologies and the search for the disappeared in Mexico in Athenea Digital. Revista de pensamiento e investigación social

Title Comic Book- The Awakening of Tezcatlipoca 
Description This is a comic book and webpage to bring issues of data governance and justice to the general public and create a branding around our project. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Closer links with independent artist in Mexico 
Description Unfortunately, due to the pandemic most of the fieldwork we had planned in Mexico was impossible (except from 17 focus groups we conducted in 2018-19). It is slightly ironic, that despite the fact that most of our work is about digital resistance, it was too risky to conduct interviews and fieldwork at a distance; without putting key human rights defenders and activist at heightened risk, due to the wide use of spyware in Mexico. Therefore, we reoriented the project toward the creation of imaginative audiovisuals (including a videogame that explores the relationships between incomplete data and kidnapping), participatory design, and the development of technological platform to improve democratic governance. Our documentary research, and participatory design workshops showed there was a whole series of cultural objections towards security planning in Mexico, in the wider population, and a sense of powerlessness when individuals and collectives faced digital platforms that shaped their everyday experiences, without them having any say in the matter. In contrast to the data reveal in our focus groups we learnt that activist, and victims of human rights abuses were savvy users of digital platforms and social media, and their creative insights inspired our participatory design- however it is too early to say what are the implications and consequences of these design and exploratory technologies will have in the Mexican society.
Exploitation Route We have a series of documentaries, animations and insights born from sociological documentary research that could provide a platform for NGOs, academics and international institutions to build a more nuanced understanding of data justice in Mexico. Some of these videos present archive research through the lens of Science and Technology theories and debates, there is also a videogame that explores the interstices of kidnapping, incomplete data and citizen-led technologies to face injustice in Mexico.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment,Security and Diplomacy,Other

Description Our findings have informed a videogame dealing with data and kidnapping, that is available in our data justice webpage:, we have also contributed to a series of communal interventions to deal with data in a more horizontal way to inform collective mobility and cycling in Mexico City. Available at: which now informs a new research endeavour led by Exeter University and local activist in Mexico City, looking for alternative mobility pathways to support working class women using bikes to distribute organic food/crops cultivated in Chinampas (floating Islands in Mexico City- from the Aztec times) across the city.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship
Amount £165,000 (GBP)
Funding ID ECF-2021-220 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2021 
End 09/2024
Title Data Justice App in Mexico. 
Description Data Justice The data justice project produced a mobile app that helps people create groups for governance and emergency response in case of kidnapping. The second phase of the Data Justice project will create new. The most prominent aspect of the second phase is the port of the app to a distributed platform which will host an ecosystem of apps for different aspects of horizontal governance. Task breakdown The development effort will be divided in four phases which we describe bellow. 1. Analysis of distributed protocols and libraries. Outcome: choice of framework. 1.1. Literature review 1.2. Creation of feature matrix 1.3. Development trial of top choices to assure match 2. Update of data model to distributed storage. Outcome: ability to store data distributed in users' devices. 2.1. Analysis of data and their relationships 2.2. Creation of table and field maps 2.3. Analysis of sequences in data creation and update 3. Re-implementation of use cases. Outcome: port of app to distributed platform. 3.1. Analysis of user interactions and feature priorization. 3.2. Creation of use-case catalog 3.3. Creation of test framework 3.4. Re-write of use cases in distributed framework 4. Packaging and Distribution. Outcome: app is available for download and use. 4.1. App Store 4.2. Google Play 4.3. F-Droid 4.4. Website Task Breakdown for Flocking Feature 1. Implementation of mobile app using Kivy ( 1.1. Voyage initialization module (pick origin and destination on map) 1.2. Hive client: register to server and update with lat-lon 1.3. Connect compass to mobile device's magnetometer 2. Fine tune client/server 2.1. optimize update frequency 2.1. optimize altruism radii 3. Configuration and install of hive server on UNAM infrastructure 3.1. database setup 3.2. web server setup 3.3. firewall configuration 3.4. infrastructure monitoring 4. Packaging and Distribution. Outcome: app is available for download and use. 4.1. App Store 4.2. Google Play 4.3. F-Droid 4.4. Website 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact None yet 
Description Cybernetics design with grass-root programmers. 
Organisation National Autonomous University of Mexico
Country Mexico 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution A key partner in UNAM laboratory of cybernetics and the environment has worked with us to develop new digital tools to navigate insecurity in Mexico, his in kind contributions are calculated based oh the costs of his time doing free of charge consultancy and design work.
Collaborator Contribution Design the new generation of apps and digital infrastructures for horizontal governance.
Impact none yet- coming at the end of the year.
Start Year 2018
Title Code kidnapping 
Description This is a videogame that explores the interstices between kidnapping, scarce data and surveillance in Mexico designed to help families face threats and uncertainties in the Mexican scenario. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2021 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact Too early to say. 
Title Social Cycling 
Description This is a flocking software to allow cyclists in Mexico city to flock together in order to increase security through number when riding a bike or travelling in Mexico City. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact We were able to co-create and support local technology makers in Mexico who had researched and thought about how the app could work before. 
Description Creation of Comic Book for the project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We have co-produced a comic book dealing with Data in a cyber punk fantasy world to reach younger audiences in Mexico City, we presented some of its preliminary results in a soft launch event in Mexico City, on October 2019. The comic book was well received, but we will do a more formal launch in the coming months.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Soft Launch of App for cycling in Mexico City 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact We continued developing the technologies we previously designed throughout the various focus groups and participatory design meetings we had in Mexico City in 2018/19, in conjunction with our partners at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM). Product of this first collaboration our key research partner Rodrigo Garcia Herrera coded the social cycling app, available at:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Soft Launch of comic book project. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact We presented the main outcomes of our comic book design to the general public in Mexico City.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Workshops to understand insecurity and data practices in Mexico throughout 2019 (Seventeen in total) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We organised workshop to understand the preoccupations and experiences of people and to disseminate our project on Data Justice, amongst the various participants that worked with us in the Newton Fund project' Mobile Solutions Against the Mexican Kidnapping Epidemic'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019