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Privacy for Refugees

For most consumers, it is possible, if not necessarily easy, to opt out of sharing sensitive personal information. But, for vulnerable people, such as nearly five million Syrian refugees, refusing to provide personal data, which may be shared among a multitude of agencies and organizations, can mean being sent back to a war zone.

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.

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.