Biometrics pose highest challenge to data controls in humanitarian efforts, Red Cross says

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Biometrics pose highest challenge to data controls in humanitarian efforts, Red Cross says

Data control, integrity and availability are mandatory now that technology is deployed for humanitarian efforts, Balthasar Staehelin, ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) Digital Transformation and Data director, said in a statement to a high-level panel on “Improving Humanitarian Effectiveness Through New Technologies and Innovation: Opportunities and Challenges” of the United Nations Economic and Social Council – Humanitarian Affairs Segment.

Humanitarian organizations can use advanced digital technologies to have more productive campaigns, however the high amount of sensitive data they have to collect and process on a daily basis could be at risk due to emerging cyber risks, affecting the vulnerable people who need protection in the first place.

Judging by the existing ecosystem, Staehelin believes the focus should be on full control over data, data integrity, and data availability. Data access should also be limited to authorized users. Biometrics pose the highest challenge, because governments could show interest in the data collected and request humanitarian organizations provide access to the information. The data could also be at risk through metadata collection by third parties.

The December International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted a resolution ensuring data integrity and that data collected is only used for humanitarian efforts. Data integrity is critical because it goes hand in hand with the organization’s capability to maintain trust. Timely and reliable access to information and online services for affected populations is another focus. Organizations need to stay focused on full control over data, data integrity and data availability, as well as ensure an ethical tech approach, rather than choosing the most cost-effective, according to the statement.

The ICRC and the Brussels Privacy Hub released the second edition of the Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action to provide guidelines for data analytics, blockchain, digital identity, drones, machine learning, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, weaponization of information on social media and other issues. Governments and third parties should guarantee a safe, neutral and impartial digital humanitarian space, Staehelin concludes, to prevent the use of unsuitable solutions.

In 2019, the ICRC adopted a new Biometrics Policy to ensure the ethical use of biometric technology and to focus on data protection roadblocks.

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