Biometrics risks for humanitarian systems considered in Caribou Digital and DAI report

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Humanitarian system donors and implementers must be careful with the biometric systems they use to the extent of considering their future use for government-led social protection systems, a new report from Caribou Digital and international development company DAI argues.

The ‘Review and Analysis of Identification and Registration Systems in Protracted and Recurrent Crisis’ has been posted to Caribou Digital’s Medium page by Dr. Emrys Schoemaker, one of four authors of the report.

The report examines the collection and sharing of personal data for systems to verify the identity of aid recipients. The researchers consider the feasibility of designing humanitarian aid management information systems to be linked with state social protection systems so that people can in time leave the humanitarian aid system for the government social safety net. Case studies in ‘Fragile and Conflict Affected States (FACS)’ Yemen and South Sudan, a literature review and interviews with stakeholders form the basis of the review and recommendations.

The potential value in data sharing, in terms of coordination and efficiency, and a trend towards consolidation of systems, could lead to processes with consequences that are not well understood by many humanitarian practitioners, project managers and policy advisors, according to the report.

Among other troubling conclusions from the report is that the inadvertent and deliberate leakage of personal and anonymized data is inevitable. The report suggests that beyond better data protection, other measures like data minimization are also important.

Collaboration should be supported with interoperable standards, rather than consolidation into a single system, and individuals should be respected as data agents, not just data subjects, the report authors write. The sector should agree to a standards-based international data protection regime, which could be contractual or voluntary, and develop a community of practice on management information systems interoperability.

Biometrics are particularly powerful tools for system efficiency, the report acknowledges, and their use is increasing, but not always with adequate consideration of the concerns that go along with them. The report authors laud the biometric data protocols of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) as an example of the approach humanitarian organizations should take.

The ICRC recently declared biometrics the greatest challenge for humanitarian data controls.

More work is also needed on consent and risk assessments, the report says.

While the recommendations add up to a fairly lengthy to-do list for humanitarian organizations and their supporters, reducing the fragmentation of those organizations’ data processes could allow the identification systems that underpin cash transfers to function with less duplication or exclusion. Ultimately, some believe the same identification systems could be used as building blocks for lasting social support and inclusion.

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