Critical Data Studies A Cross-College Collaboration

Glossary: Data Colonialism

The definition of “data colonialism” is the process by which governments, non-governmental organizations and corporations claim ownership of and privatize the data that is produced by their users and citizens. Thatcher, O’Sullivan and Mahmoudi (2016: 990) following David Harvey describe this process as “capitalist accumulation by dispossession." Through the integration of smart phones and other portable technologies into our everyday lives, personal aspects of our lives are now collected. Producers of the data are the ones who are most often dispossessed of their right to own and control this resource. This dispossession can take place, for example, through End-User-License-Agreements that allow for the privatization of user data (Thatcher et al.2016:  996). Reardon and Tallbear (2012) draw attention to how data colonialism plays out with DNA data, specifically biological data collected from indigenous peoples for medical, political, and social purposes. According to Reardon and Tallbear, some researchers want to obtain and claim rights to Indigenous people’s DNA under the premise that it will be used for bettering the lives of those who participate in such studies. However, although researchers may have good intentions with their work, there is no guarantee that the benefits of such work will outweigh potential/future misuses of such data, as has been done in the past. Reardon and Tallbear (2012: 236) argue that “the study of the indigenous members’ DNA is the extension of the past efforts by Europeans to colonize Indigenous people." One concern is that researchers may use DNA collected from Indigenous people to further their careers rather than the needs of Indigenous communities. The case ASU vs. Havasupai manifests many aspects of these concerns. In this case, members of the Havasupai Tribe consented for ASU researchers to collect and utilize their DNA to answer specific research questions. However, ASU researchers then distributed the data to non-ASU researchers working on other research questions. After the distribution was made public, the researchers continued to defend their right to engage in this practice. As both of these example demonstrate, data colonialism continues to have implications for emerging and long-stading power relations.




Reardon, Jenny and Kim Tallbear. (2012). “Your DNA Is Our History”: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property,” Current Anthropology , 53: S233-S245. Retrieved from:


Thatcher J, O’Sullivan D, Mahmoudi D. (2016). Data colonialism through accumulation by dispossession: New metaphors for daily data. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 34(6):990-1006. Retrieved from:


Student Editors: Matthew Der, Haoyuan Chen and Jia-Lin Chen. We would like to thank additional student editors who would like to remain anonymous for their contributions.