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Report proposes holistic, responsible approach to biometrics deployment in humanitarian contexts

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Report proposes holistic, responsible approach to biometrics deployment in humanitarian contexts

Results of a study carried out between February 2022 and June 2023 have highlighted that the use of biometrics in humanitarian programming must be done in a holistic and responsible manner, taking into account the inherent risks of collecting biometric data from vulnerable populations.

Conducted by The Engine Room, a non-profit organization rooting for the safe use of technology and data, the study delves into the risks and benefits of biometrics in the humanitarian sector as well as organizational policies related thereto.

It notes, among other things, that the harms involved in the practice must be assessed holistically including issues such as function creep. Function creep is a situation whereby information is used for a purpose different from what it was initially intended for.

According to the research, for biometrics use in such settings to make more meaning, there is need to establish the full evidence of its benefits to the target population. This means “a deeper investigation into the potential benefits of biometric technology,” the report indicates.

Among other problems identified during the study, the researchers note the lack of coherence in the approach to deploying biometrics across humanitarian sectors, the poor implementation of policies guiding the process, prevalence of technical literacy among the key decision makers which inhibits proper decision making, as well as the fact that donors fail to provide full support to ensure the safe and responsible use of the biometric systems they fund.

For things to change for the better, the study proposes a couple of things that must be considered by different stakeholders involved in biometrics for the humanitarian sector, following up on recommendations made after a similar study by The Engine Room back in 2018.

“Our research showed a clear need to develop a more coherent and responsible approach to the use of biometrics in the sector, and that in order for humanitarian organizations to uphold their commitment and responsibility to impacted communities, it is vital that a shared standard is established in the sector,” reads part of the executive summary.

Per the study, deploying biometrics in the a more responsible and less harmful manner for humanitarian activities would require five things: the continued interrogation of the necessity of biometrics in the first place, a more nuanced policy design and implementation, the need to put in place a community-based standard of practice, strengthening efforts on data protection impact assessments, and ensuring a more thorough and ecosystem-wide appraisal of the technologies used in the sector.

The use of biometrics in the humanitarian sector has always been greeted with mixed reactions. However, sector players like the International Organization for Migration believe the technology can help streamline humanitarian response efforts as seen in places like South Sudan, a country struggling with thousands of forcibly displaced persons.

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