African nations must implement safeguards against humanitarian digital ID risks: researcher
African countries must put in place policies to ensure that personal data such as biometrics collected for humanitarian purposes are not used otherwise, and without the consent of the data subject. This argument is made by migration issues researcher Margaret Monyani of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS Africa) in Pretoria, South Africa.
Monyani lauds the importance of digital technologies used in humanitarianism. In her opinion article titled ‘Digital humanitarianism in Africa: hope or hype?’, published by the ISS, Monyani cites instances in which bodies like the World Food Program (WFP) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have used digital technologies based on biometrics to dispense humanitarian aid in countries including Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, and Yemen.
Digital humanitarianism more generally refers to interventions that take place on line rather than in-person.
However, such digital technologies which target a huge number of people, come with inherent risks which governments must stand up to, she argues.
Ignoring such risks, leaves room for human rights violations, identity theft and even data privacy breaches, she adds, citing the example of how a cyber-attack on the system of the ICRC and its partner organizations earlier this year exposed the personal data of about 500,000 vulnerable people across the world.
The use of digital technologies such as biometrics and their consequences on target groups has been an issue of concern to many stakeholders, including academics.
“The risks of digital humanitarianism extend beyond identity theft and digital intrusion. Function creep – using data and tools for tasks other than their initial intent – is dangerous in refugee settings. Biometrics collected for humanitarian purposes can be used by governments in law enforcement, border management and counter-terrorism without the affected person’s knowledge” argues Monyani.
As part of the solution to this problem, the writer believes a pragmatic approach to digital humanitarianism is required, but the very first thing to do is for “African governments and other stakeholders to know the inherent risks and find ways to mitigate them.”
Also, attention should be paid to establishing frameworks that support an inclusive method of digital humanitarianism, while those working on humanitarian projects on the African continent should also “raise awareness among migrants about the design and use of new technology to avoid misuse and exposure to risks and misunderstandings.”
Monyani also recommends that while governments are devising policies that allow migrants and displaced persons the means of mobility and access to vital social services, other policies that safeguard the rights of the migrants in relation to the technologies used, must also be in place to strike a balance.
In a similar development, some civil society organizations and digital rights advocates on 7 September addressed an open letter to the World Bank and its partners calling for safeguards against the harms which some digital ID systems they are funding around the world, inflict on users.