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More education needed for biometrics ethics in humanitarian context: Simprints webinar panel

Challenges magnified by polarization and myths
More education needed for biometrics ethics in humanitarian context: Simprints webinar panel

The ethics of using biometrics in development and humanitarian projects can be difficult and confusing with important concepts that seem to help in similar circumstances, like consent, having dubious value, a panel of experts said during a fascinating Simprints webinar this week.

The first half of the webinar was moderated by Simprints Chief Partnerships Officer and Acting Data Protection Officer Sebastian Manhart, who pointed out that biometrics adoption has been slower in the humanitarian sector than in some others, due to the conditions and risks involved for the people development agencies work with. He also notes the pioneering use of biometrics by the World Food Program and UNHCR.

Manhart and the panelists were joined by around 60 people for the live event. An audience poll showed a fairly even split between those who have and have not used biometrics in their work in the past.

Oxfam Head of Information Security James Eaton-Lee, who has a cybersecurity background, talked about the organization’s hesitancy to use biometrics, which was based on concerns about when the technology is useful, and when it is appropriate, as well as around the need for “structures and practices for using them effectively that we didn’t currently have.”

Donor relations and partners already using biometrics is a central driver of interest in biometrics for Oxfam, and fraud prevention another driver, Eaton-Lee explained.

“It’s difficult to maintain a moratorium or a negative policy position when you don’t know what safe looks like,” he observed, noting that the organization continues to explore that problem with its partners.

Yoti Chief Commercial and Data Protection Officer Emma Butler, who has also worked at the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, and therefore brings a perspective informed by experience from both the regulator and industry sides, noted the growth in biometrics use and social dialogue about it.

Butler mentioned the many misconceptions about biometrics, such as (at least in the EU and UK) that the technology operates in a completely unregulated “wild west,” and the lack of nuance in the related debates.

“You often hear people speak about biometrics as this big umbrella term, and they lump everything into it,” Butler remarked. “So there’s no distinction between public sector use and private sector use, for a start.”

These generalizations, Butler said, can lead to hysteria.

Butler also spoke about the foundational role of biometrics, and therefore ethics, in Yoti’s conception of digital identity. Building protections into technology from the start is much easier than attaching them afterwards, she notes.

Rosa Akbari, senior Tech4Dev advisor at Mercy Corps was originally introduced to biometrics while working for the U.S. government in applications that she says were “not for humanitarian needs.”

While working on humanitarian projects, later in life, Akbari says she gained a new appreciation for the importance of identity, and biometrics in particular. In those contexts, however, “the rules and regulations may not hold as accountable.”

Akbari’s work largely involves cash and voucher programs, which often involve biometrics. She says that when she began working with Simprints, no shortage of startups proposing their technology be used, and there was high demand for the technology, “without much recognition of the data responsibility” and due diligence necessary. Band-aid solutions in which biometrics are counted on to solve a problem without being properly integrated often result, according to Akbari.

In the context of cash and voucher programs, multiple NGOs and even government agencies may be involved, and “the ability as a single NGO to say ‘we’re going to use biometrics’ becomes I think rightfully co-opted into a broader conversation,” Akbari says.

Trust Stamp CCO and Women in Identity Founder Emma Lindley stated her belief that it is possible to find the necessary balance to help empower people not just in development contexts but those without ID in more wealthy countries as well.

The proliferation of biometrics technologies and providers has the benefit of giving NGOs choice, and the detriment of contributing to confusion, Lindley points out, making it important for organizations to educate themselves and identify companies that have principles have addressed their concerns.

Many different standards, principles and regulations are now in place to help organizations, but education is often as important as technology, and Lindley listed some of them, though later Eaton-Lee suggested many existing frameworks have limited application in difficult situations.

The question and answer portion was moderated by Simprints’ Delphine Pedeboy, began with examples of when biometrics have been useful, and when their use has been superfluous, and moved on to dealing with myths about biometric technology. The role of consent, and how it can apply in humanitarian situations was also discussed, along with the realistic role of individual control or responsibility in regulation.

Ultimately, testing and communication are necessary to even know what people can do with digital technology, and a good deal of that work seems to remain to be done.

There was general agreement during the discussion about the need to avoid polarization in the dialogue around ethics in biometrics for development, and that biometrics is not the only answer to identity questions.

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