New project on sphere transitions and transgressions during COVID-19

The Global Data Justice project is happy to announce the start of its new research initiative, entitled Sphere transitions and transgressions during COVID-19: Challenging the tech sector’s power grab in Europe. This project is funded by the EU AI Fund, and is part of its Tech and COVID-19 theme.

Europe is undergoing extensive political, social and economic changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of this upheaval is being driven by technological interventions made possible by the offerings of a multitude of digital tech and data analytics firms and can be observed all around us in the form of ‘sector creep’.

Over the next year this project, which builds on the Data Justice and COVID-19: Global Perspectives book published by Meatspace Press, will research what philosopher Tamar Sharon calls ‘sector transgressions’ that are occuring as a result of the pandemic. This is a phenomenon whereby firms establish themselves in one sphere of application, then use the computational infrastructure, political capital and insights they gain from it to pivot to other spheres, where they may lack domain experience and ethical understanding to operate without potential harm to the public. For instance, we have witnessed companies like Palantir, which typically works with intelligence, defence and law enforcement agencies, pursue business opportunities in the health sphere in several European countries (including France, Germany and the UK). Likewise, vendors specialising in security, surveillance and identity ‘solutions’ marketed for airports and other transportation sites have pivoted to find new applications for their offerings in other spheres following a massive decline in travel during the lockdown.

These examples show the need for a more comprehensive account of the various sphere transgressions being made possible by European countries’ pandemic responses and an analysis of the implications of these transgressions for rights and regulatory processes. This project will use empirical research across nine European countries, namely the UK, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Romania, Hungary and Italy to investigate sphere transgressions and their implications. We are committed to working transparently and sharing our insights in openly accessible outlets, including on the Global Data Justice project website.

As part of the project we also aim to engage with experts and stakeholders, such as civil society organisations, both to understand their insights into this phenomenon and to form a network of organisations working on the issues that may arise from it.

If you or your organisation would like to engage with us on this critical research, please get in touch by emailing info [at]

About the project

Places and populations that were previously digitally invisible are now part of a ‘data revolution’ that is being hailed as a transformative tool for human and economic development. Yet this unprecedented expansion of the power to digitally monitor, sort, and intervene is not well connected to the idea of social justice, nor is there a clear concept of how broader access to the benefits of data technologies can be achieved without amplifying misrepresentation, discrimination, and power asymmetries.

We therefore need a new framework for data justice integrating data privacy, non-discrimination, and non-use of data technologies into the same framework as positive freedoms such as representation and access to data. This project will research the lived experience of data technologies in high- and low-income countries worldwide, seeking to understand people’s basic needs with regard to these technologies. We will also seek the perspectives of civil society organisations, technology companies, and policymakers.