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Digital Surveillance and Digitally-disadvantaged Language Communities (lay summary)

This is a lay summary of the article published under the DOI:

Published onApr 24, 2023
Digital Surveillance and Digitally-disadvantaged Language Communities (lay summary)

Researchers call for safer digital tools for less common languages

Researchers have described how some digital tools, such as Facebook, did not consider the risks to communities that use languages other than those the tool targeted. They urged us to consider all positive and negative consequences when developing such tools in future.

Digital tools are very useful, for instance giving millions access to information and the ability to communicate across large distances. But, they also bring risks and negative consequences, such as less privacy. Unfortunately, the benefits and risks of digital tools are not equal for all users.

Large tech companies create tools targeted to users of the most prominent languages. This forces communities that use less common languages to abandon their language or create their own tools.

Studies predict that 50% to 90% of languages may become extinct by 2100. Many communities hope to preserve their language and culture by making digital designed tools for it. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that these small communities have the expertise and resources to prevent risks for their tools when this has even been a challenge for large tech companies.

The author wants to educate readers by raising issues and questions we should ask ourselves when making or using digital tools. They want to challenge us to consider these tools' potential positive and negative consequences. And especially how the tools may harm those they meant to help.

The researcher compiled and presented studies highlighting how digital tools have helped and harmed in the past. For example, the US military created the Internet and decided to share it with the public.

The Internet has increased human connection and access to information. But, it has also led to the spread of misinformation that caused deadly violence.

This author emphasises that we must build tools with safety and harm reduction in mind. They suggest that developers should prevent access to data, use end-to-end encryption (ensuring that the sender and receiver of information are the only ones that can access it), and use community-driven oversight and moderation. Developers should also involve experts in data security, they said.

The author admits that they raise more questions than they answer, but hopes this actually shows that no one person should be the authority on this topic, and no one person can solve the problem alone. We should all work together to consider and raise more issues and questions, they said.

This author stresses that this issue is crucial for languages with fewer speakers and for existing digital tools. This makes it especially relevant for Africa where many language minorities reside. They mention specific problems in Ethiopia and Nigeria, where a lack of safe tools lead to the death of at least 11 people.


The issue of digital surveillance often falls outside urgent discussions regarding the need to build digital supports for under- resourced languages. While the benefits of these supports for digitally-disadvantaged language communities are clear, the reality is that standardized script use, standardized spelling, and NLP systems in particular increase a language community’s legibility for digital surveillance. As we build digital supports for Indigenous and minority language communities, we must consider how these tools might be used against them through digital surveillance, and how to combat these risks.


This summary is a free resource intended to make African research and research that affects Africa, more accessible to non-expert global audiences. It was compiled by ScienceLink's team of professional African science communicators as part of the Masakhane MT: Decolonise Science project. ScienceLink has taken every precaution possible during the writing, editing, and fact-checking process to ensure that this summary is easy to read and understand, while accurately reporting on the facts presented in the original research paper. Note, however, that this summary has not been fact-checked or approved by the authors of the original research paper, so this summary should be used as a secondary resource. Therefore, before using, citing or republishing this summary, please verify the information presented with the original authors of the research paper, or email [email protected] for more information.

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