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Privacy for Refugees

LONDON – With people living so much of their lives online nowadays, it is easier than ever for governments and companies to collect large amounts of personal information. Not surprisingly, data privacy is a hot topic. But there are plenty of people being left out of the debates. And, unfortunately, those are the people who need the most attention.

As much as Internet companies like Facebook or Google want to collect data about their users, there are limits to their power to do so. Most of the time, there is a way to opt out of providing personal data, even if it is sometimes buried deep in a complex set of privacy settings. If those opt-outs are not convincing enough, there are privacy-focused search engines or email providers.

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But some vulnerable populations – such as the nearly five million Syrians who have been forced from their home country – cannot opt out, unless they want to be sent right back to a warzone. If they hope to be granted refugee status – not to mention food, clothing, shelter, and other basic necessities – they have to give whatever information the NGOs, IGOs, aid agencies, and humanitarian workers request. In other words, for refugees, whether to provide personal information, from religious beliefs to biometric data, can be a matter of life and death.

But what if those data fell into the wrong hands? With the organizations responsible for data security operating in low-resource, high-pressure circumstances, it is not an unreasonable question. The exposed refugees might be in serious danger.

Sensitive information is being circulated among an increasingly wide array of actors, such as third-party financial institutions, technology developers, cloud computing service providers, and other humanitarian agencies. Every time that information is shared – whether it is entered into a new database or a new actor gains access to a single aggregated database – the risk of privacy breaches grows.

There is no shortage of groups that would love to get their hands on the data. Over the last few years, the Syrian Electronic Army, which supports the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad, has successfully hacked into a number of secure databases.

Of course, this is not to say that collecting data on refugees is fundamentally wrong. The reality is that many governments could not justify accepting refugees without a thorough vetting process – and that demands data. Moreover, using biometric data like iris scans, rather than bankcards, offers some advantages for aid-delivery – namely, ensuring that assistance is delivered to its intended recipient.

But there is a need to assess whether all of the kinds of data that are currently collected are really needed. Does collecting them genuinely advance the objectives of providing support to refugees? Are the benefits of using biometric data significant enough that refugees should have no alternative? (According to a 2013 report, many refugees are indeed concerned about providing biometric data.)

For the data that are deemed useful and necessary, there is a need to review collection, storage, and sharing processes, in order to ensure that sensitive information is never compromised. Exchanges of personal data among companies, humanitarian groups, and government agencies should be allowed only when they are truly necessary, and should be conducted as securely as possible.

Privacy is not a privilege – a comfort that desperate people should have to give up. It is a fundamental human right, enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. International law obliges data controllers and processors to protect data sets containing personal data, particularly in the context of large-scale monitoring of individuals.

Though some IGOs are exempt from these requirements, such organizations must strive to implement best practices with regard to privacy, ethics, and data protection. After all, it makes little sense to collect data for the sake of protecting vulnerable populations, only to leave those data vulnerable to breaches by dangerous actors.

The first step is to carry out a privacy impact assessment (PIA). A PIA is a tool used to identify, analyze, and mitigate privacy risks arising from technological systems or processes. While there is no single established approach to undertaking a PIA, experience has produced some best practices, comprising a set of privacy principles and criteria, according to which systems for collecting, storing, and share refugees’ data should be assessed.

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For a PIA to work, it must weigh privacy against other imperatives, such as efficient aid provision. Given the lack of experience with this type of assessment, the framework and those applying it should be flexible. In settings that are continually changing, in response to the needs and capabilities of a range of actors, an iterative approach with qualitative elements is imperative.

There is no perfect methodology, and practice will always differ from theory. But a high-quality PIA can help an organization assess and mitigate the privacy risks associated with the use of information and communications technology, biometric technologies, geo-location tracking devices, and so on. It is not a solution to the privacy challenge faced by refugees and their advocates, but it is an important step in the right direction.