Biometrics collection from refugees and vulnerable people questioned by analysts

Biometrics collection from refugees and vulnerable people questioned by analysts

The use of biometrics and digital identity systems in the humanitarian sector remains highly problematic, viewed through a data justice lens, according to a pair of researchers from ERC Global Data Justice project at TILT, Tilburg University. Biometrics use has become prevalent in humanitarian systems, according to an editorial in Foreign Policy.

The researchers’ paper on ‘Exclusion and inclusion in identification: regulation, displacement and data justice’ explores the situation by examining the effects on displaced populations in Uganda and Bangladesh. The two case studies offer divergent approaches to inclusivity policy, with Uganda shifting towards inclusiveness while Bangladesh restricts participation.

Importantly, the paper notes that Uganda is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and is working with the UNHCR, while the researchers say Bangladesh has largely managed displaced people within its borders through domestic government agencies.

Much of the paper explores the “double-edged sword” or digital identification systems, and the biometrics that often back them. While these schemes afford access to resources and make people visible to governments, they can also exacerbate power imbalances. The digitization of aid, and the relation between identification, mobile connectivity, and access to financial services are discussed.

Internal backlogs within an issuing agency have caused many displaced persons in Uganda to not posses the document they need to carry out a required biometric registration to receive a SIM card, and therefore are blocked from receiving a mobile phone account they are entitled to, the report says. The country’s telecom regulator has responded by issuing a new directive for telecom providers to accept Attestation Letters, which are easier to access. In order to provide access to mobile money services, biometrics may be included in the SIM registration process for refugees in Uganda.

In Bangaldesh, Rohingya refugees displaced from Myanmar generally do not have identity credentials from their home country, which does not recognize them as full citizens. Bangladesh’s telecom regulator has responded by explicitly prohibiting the sale of SIMs to displaced Rohingya people, despite the use of fingerprint biometrics in the regulatory process for Bengali people purchasing SIMs.

Ultimately, the researchers write, technical fixes for ID systems are not able to solve underlying political, legal, and regulatory problems. A refugee identification system accords with a data justice vision only if it does not assess them, they argue.

The use of biometrics in systems for refugees, while benefiting them with official identity, protection from fraud, and improved dignity, also threatens their security, particularly for refugee women, by increasing the risk of false matches, the potential for discrimination, and threatening exploitation, Alexandria Polk of the Equanimity Foundation writes for Foreign Policy.

The claim about the risk of false matches is supported by the statement that “Biometric technology occasionally incorrectly registers a refugee as already in the system,” and that testing is generally carried out with much smaller datasets than operations at scale. Polk also refers to demographic disparities in facial recognition systems, which are not widely used in humanitarian contexts, and a higher probability of women’s fingerprints being degraded by injuries such as cooking burns.

The article suggests biometric systems are discriminatory based on the refusal of Muslim women in Bangladesh to consent to iris scans and photographs, though the report referred to notes that example as the only one it had found of widespread refusals to register biometrics. The transmission of biometric data collected by the UNHCR to the U.S. Department of Homeland Services is seen as creating a risk of exploitation, as is the any potential future breach of refugees’ biometric data.

Recognizing these problems would be a good first step towards improving systems that have already benefitted refugee identification, according to the article. Polk recommends the use of multiple biometric modalities to mitigate matching errors, the strengthening of security measures, and long-term policies to mitigate harms in the case of a data breach.

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