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April 28, 2022updated 27 Jun 2022 8:52am

How New Zealand’s Māori people are fighting for their data sovereignty

The Māori data sovereignty movement is part of a global campaign for indigenous data protection.

By Greg Noone

Empire has had many legacies in New Zealand. For the Māori, it has been one of exclusion. The arrival of British settlers from the late 18th century onwards led to centuries of racial and cultural discrimination and a denial of meaningful land, employment and voting rights for the country’s indigenous peoples. Only in recent decades has this situation begun to ease through political reform and the creation of tribunals guaranteeing Māori individuals and tribes, or iwi, a hearing for their grievances.

While Māori have recovered ancestral lands and received financial compensation through these mechanisms, opposition has grown toward another form of appropriation: the collection of personal data.

For an increasing number of activists, the collection of data on Māori individuals and communities ignores the definition of data as a ‘taonga,’ a treasured possession which needs to be protected and treated with reverence. “From a Western perspective that covers all data and information about Māori or created by Māori,” explains Māori intellectual property expert Dr Karaitiana Taiuru.

Such concerns are not unique to New Zealand. Indigenous peoples around the world, from the Sámi in Sweden to Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, have expressed frustrations about how data unique to their communities is collected without consent by Western governments, academic researchers and corporations.

For many of these indigenous peoples, data forms an inviolable part of their cultural heritage. Its collection without permission, therefore, constitutes its own form of digital colonialism. The result, write activists from the State of Open Data project, “is the co-opting of indigenous knowledge and the removal of indigenous peoples from data governance”.

Protestors on Waitangi Day
Protestors on Waitangi Day. Māori data sovereignty activists argue that data is a ‘taonga,’ or treasured possession, that is protected under New Zealand’s foundational Treaty of Waitangi. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Indigenous data sovereignty

The concept of indigenous data sovereignty – wherein such communities can take back control of their personal data – provides a framework for safeguarding cultural heritage and autonomy, while preserving access to essential digital services.

New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world that has adopted a whole-of-government approach to safeguarding Māori cultural heritage. In 2020, the Waitangi Tribunal – a permanent inquiry into the treatment of the Maori people – advised data should be included in this heritage.

That established a precedent that was subsequently cited by the country’s High Court, which ruled in favour of a Māori-led health organisation that had requested access to government data on unvaccinated Māori on the North Island. The case could help in establishing guidelines on the collection and storage of data about a given iwi in ways that respect Māori values.

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There are still obstacles to achieving the same for individuals. This would either require that New Zealand’s data protection rules uphold Māori data sovereignty principles for all citizens, or else finding a way to identify oneself as a Māori online.

For the latter, Taiuru is optimistic that some kind of framework can be constructed based on genealogical data submitted by Māori for membership to a given iwi. “It wouldn’t take too much… to link up with the government and cross-check that information,” he says.

Then there’s the question of where the data should be stored. While New Zealand has relatively strict privacy laws, personal data collected by foreign companies – particularly social media networks – is likely to be stored abroad, where it remains inaccessible to Māori communities.

One way of ensuring that Māori can maintain a level of practical scrutiny over how their data is managed, says Taiuru, would be to “have our own cloud servers in New Zealand, ideally using open source software owned by a New Zealand company”.

That, he adds, would be the clearest manifestation of Māori data sovereignty – albeit one that Taiuru concedes is unlikely in the near term, given the immense cost constraints.

Absent national legislation, the cause of Māori data sovereignty continues to advance on a case-by-case basis. One battleground is a new framework for signing into New Zealand government services using biometric data, a project that Taiuru claims has not consulted with Māori communities.

Another potential source of friction is a proposal for a national genome bank. Obtaining a full genomic catalogue of New Zealand’s population will help to address inequities in the provision of health services for Māori, say the project’s leaders. However, Taiuru says meaningful safeguards for data collection still need to be implemented.

“From a Māori perspective, their DNA is the most sacred biological thing in the world, because it’s…everything about you,” he says. As such, he adds, “we need to consider commercial equity partnerships whenever scientists use DNA samples” from Māori communities.

Nevertheless, Taiuru remains hopeful that greater recognition of Māori data sovereignty principles can be achieved in the next few years. It comes at a moment, he says, when countries are increasingly implementing their own data localisation programs.

“I think this is a good time to talk about indigenous and Māori data sovereignty while countries are becoming aware of such things,” says Taiuru. “I’m a firm believer that, eventually, this will just be part of the data ecosystem.”

Read more: Can GAIA-X solve Europe’s data sovereignty problem?

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