The Hong Kong protesters are angry. Furious about seeing democracy erode, the threat of losing their freedom of speech, seeing their privacy more and more diminish. But what role does data-tracking play in the protests? My research explores what role user data in corporate hands can play in such a setting. Data from the first wave of the umbrella movement in the year of 2014 shows a spike in government request for user data in Google’s transparency report.  The data that companies such as Google, Twitter or Facebook store can promise vast insights into the mobilization of political groups, such as the Hong Kong protesters.

Not only does the user data allow a more targeted reaction of government forces, but it also allows preemptive surveillance and anticipatory measures. Under less public scrutiny and with less tech savvy populations than in Hong Kong, government surveillance facilitated by user data has an even more scathing effect – it silences opposition voices and leads to violence against activists.

Therefore, companies find themselves in a dilemma situation when dealing with data request from government actors. Often their hands are tied, and they need to handover data due to legal requirement or license agreements (in particular telcos). Yet often there is considerable leeway in how companies react to data requests. My research examines the leverage that companies have to respond to such requests and what happens inside the company when a request comes in.

Isabel Ebert is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Business Ethics, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland (Prof. Florian Wettstein). Under joint supervision with the Oxford Internet Institute (Prof. Gina Neff), her PhD research focusses on data requests by governments to companies. Using a sensemaking approach, her research explores which steps companies have identified to respond to such requests, and how responsible business conduct emerges. Isabel contributes with her work to the research project “"Big Brother" in Swiss companies? Trust, data and personal privacy of employees” (Swiss National Science Foundation). Isabel previously served as the EU representative at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in London, after gaining first work experience at the German Mission in South Africa, the Mayor of Berlin and the Goethe Institute New York City. She holds degrees in International Relations from Goethe University Frankfurt and Politics & Management from University of Konstanz and Sciences Po Paris.