Tag Archives: Aid

Contingency planning in the Digital Age: Biometric data of Afghans must be reconsidered

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This blog was first published on the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) blog and is available here.

The situation in Afghanistan changes by the minute. In this blog post, we want to call attention to a largely overlooked issue: protection of Afghan refugees or other Afghans who have been registered biometrically by humanitarian or military agencies. Having collected biometrics from various parts of the Afghan population, for different purposes and with different technical approaches, recent events teach us a vital lesson: both the humanitarian and the military approach come with significant risks and unintended consequences.

Image: Cpl. Reece Lodder/United States Marine Corps

Normally, humanitarian biometrics and military biometrics are considered separate spheres. Yet, as we show in this piece, looking at military and humanitarian biometric systems in parallel gives a strong indication that the use of biometrics in intervention contexts calls for reconsideration. Neither anonymized nor identifiable biometric data is a ‘solution’ but rather comes with distinct risks and challenges.

Afghanistan, UNHCR and biometrics: risks of wrongfully denying refugees assistance

As embassies in Afghanistan are being evacuated and employees of international humanitarian agencies wonder how much longer they will be able to work, contingency plans are drawn up: Will there be population movements, will there be camps for IDPs in Afghanistan or for refugees across borders? How will they be registered? How will they be housed? Contingency planning will help save lives.

Future planning must learn from experiences of the past. In the case of Afghanistan those are dire. More than forty years ago, on Christmas Eve in 1979, the Soviet Army invaded the country. Afghans began fleeing and sought refuge across nearby borders. Numbers swelled progressively. A decade later there were more than five million refugees in Pakistan and Iran. The departure of Soviet troops was followed by continued civil war and the reign of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001.

A US-led coalition of Western powers dislodged the Taliban regime after the 9/11 attacks in New York. This was the starting point for the international community to invest in the return of Afghan refugees to their home country. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was tasked with organizing the return and found itself facing several challenges, including limited financial and technical capacities, and problems linked to the sheer number of persons to be repatriated. While UNHCR started to develop and operate large-scale automated registration systems already in the 1990s, these were not yet sufficiently advanced to deal with several million people. At the time, nobody had such systems. Registration was eventually outsourced to Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). Refugees were given Proof of Registration (PoR) cards issued by the Pakistani government. Another problem was the integrity of the voluntary return programme. Donors provided funds to UNHCR for the agency to disburse significant cash grants to Afghan refugees as incentives to return. But how could they ensure that nobody would come forward more than once to claim allowance? There was no precedent. UNHCR was charting new territory and testing new approaches.

A ‘solution’ was offered by an American tech company: Biometrics. A stand-alone system was set up. The iris patterns of every returning refugee above the age of 12 – later the age of 6 – was scanned and stored in a biometrics database. Intending to protect the privacy of these individuals, each refugee’s iris image was stored anonymously. The belief was that the novel biometric system would comply with data privacy standards if the iris images were stored anonymously. The system operates ‘one to many matches’, meaning that one iris image is matched against the numerous iris images stored in the database to search for a potential match. This means that a returning refugee would only receive a cash grant if their iris could not be found in UNHCR’s new biometric database. If the iris was found in the database, this was taken to mean that the person had already received a cash grant earlier and repatriation assistance was thus denied. Millions of Afghans received their allowances, and left images of their iris in UNHCR’s biometric database. Today, the total number of images in this database stands at well above four million.

Fifteen years after its introduction it was discovered that while this novel system was designed with good intentions of providing privacy protection to iris-registered returnees, it had unintentionally opened a Pandora’s box: automated decision-making without any possibility of recourse. If the biometric recognition system would produce a false positive match (i.e., mistakenly matching the iris scan of a new returnee with one already registered in UNHCR’s database) – which statistically is possible, even likely – there was no way this returnee could prove that the machine’s false match was in fact wrong. Since all scans are stored anonymously, a person cannot prove that the iris in UNHCR’s database belongs to someone else, even though that is a likely scenario for a system being tested on an unprecedented scale. Likewise, no UNHCR staff can overturn the decision of the machine. Thus, by default, the machine is always ‘right’. This logic risks turning the intended aim of privacy protection into a problem, namely denying assistance to returnees who rightfully claim repatriation cash grants from UNHCR.

This system has never been replicated elsewhere. UNHCR has modernized its global registration systems in recent years and continues to use iris scanning and other biometric identifiers. In its current system, each image is linked to a person and can be checked in case of doubt. Such system designs are, however, not unproblematic either.

US military and identifiable biometrics in the hands of the Taliban: risk of reprisals

As embassies in Afghanistan are being evacuated, not only are many vulnerable individuals left behind, but also biometric identification devices have been left. Indeed, not only UNHCR but also the US military has been collecting biometrics, though from very different parts of the Afghan population. This includes biometric data (i) from Afghans who have worked with coalition forces and (ii) from individuals encountered ‘in the field’. In both cases biometrics were for example used by the US military to check the identity of these individuals against biometrics stored in the US DoD’s Biometric-Enabled Watchlist containing biometrics from wanted terrorists, among others. As news have circulated about the Taliban getting their hands on biometric collection and identification devices left behind, and on the sensitive biometric data that these devices contain, an assessment of the situation, the risks, and the lessons is called for. What will the Taliban do with this data and with these devices? Will they for example use it to check whether an individual has collaborated with coalition forces?

If that is the case, it could have detrimental repercussions for anyone identified biometrically by the Taliban. The Taliban regime of course cannot check the iris scans and fingerprints of all individuals throughout Afghanistan. Yet, as we have seen in many other contexts, including humanitarian access, biometric checks could be introduced by the Taliban when Afghans for example cross a checkpoint moving from one region to another, or request access to hospitals or other government assistance. Would someone then decide not to go to hospital in fear of being identified by the Taliban as a friend of their coalition enemy? Or, as Welton Chang, chief technology officer at Human Rights First noted, the biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan that the Taliban now likely have access to, could also be used “to create a new class structure – job applicants would have their bio-data compared to the database, and jobs could be denied on the basis of having connections to the former government or security forces.”

There are many worst case-scenarios to think through and to do our utmost to avoid, and there are many actors who should see this as a call to revise their approaches to the collection and storing of biometric data. Besides the two examples above, it can for example also be added that as part of its migration management projects worldwide, IOM has in recent years supported the Population Registration Department within the Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoIA) in the digitalization of paper-based ID cards (“Tazkiras”). The main objective of the project is the acceleration of the identity verification process and to establish an identity verification platform. Once operational, the platform can be accessed by external government entities dependent on identity verification for provision of services. Since 2018, more than two million Afghan citizens were issued a Tazkira smartcard which is linked to a biometric database. The IOM project also supports the Document Examination Laboratory under the Criminal Investigation Department of MoIA in upgrading their systems and knowledge base on document examination.

What should be done? Access denied or data deleted

While this blogpost cannot possibly allude to all the various cases that involve biometrics in Afghanistan, it seems that a diverse range of actors, that all have collected biometric data from Afghans over the past 20 years, need to undertake an urgent risk assessment, ideally in a collective and collaborative manner. On that basis a realistic mitigation plan should be developed. How can access for example be denied or data deleted?

We do not know what will happen next in Afghanistan. Should the situation develop in a way that will see a new wave of refugees into Pakistan, UNHCR’s stand-alone iris system loses its relevance because the new refugees could well be those four million who returned during the past 19 years, and whose biometric data UNHCR has already processed once before and keeps in its database. In such a scenario, the database would serve no purpose and preparations should be made to destroy it in line with the Right to be Forgotten. Indeed, there is consensus among many human and digital rights specialists that individuals have the right to have private information removed from Internet searches and other directories and databases under certain circumstances. The concept of the Right to be Forgotten has been put into practice in several jurisdictions, including the EU. Biometric data is considered a special category of particularly sensitive data whether it is stored anonymously or not. As opposed to ID cards and passports, a biometric identity cannot be erased: you will always carry your fingerprint and iris. In fact, the main legal basis for the processing of sensitive personal data is the explicit informed consent of the concerned individual.

Another lesson for future reference should be the understanding that neither anonymized nor unanonymized biometric data provide easy technological solutions. None of the above approaches can be replicated in future war or interventions without serious reconsideration, including questions about whether and why the data is needed and careful attention to whether it should be deleted? Hence, this is the moment for UNHCR, as the global protection agency, to review and showcase its learnings from this project. It is time to show respect for the digital rights of those who have certainly never consented that their biometric data be maintained in a database beyond the point of usefulness.

One advantage of seeing this humanitarian biometric system in parallel with US military use, and other uses of biometrics in Afghanistan, is that together these examples powerfully illustrate some of the many challenges confronting the at times stubborn belief in biometrics as a solution, making challenges visible from many different ’user’ perspectives. Anonymous data is not a solution (as per the UNHCR example), nor is unanonymized data (as per the US military example). What should we do then? What do both ‘failures’ mean for how to think about the use of biometrics in future interventions, humanitarian and military.

Having stored this data for almost two decades, and now concluding that this effort was potentially not just useless, but more seriously risked producing additional insecurity – e.g. to Afghans wrongfully denied humanitarian assistance – should signpost the need to reconsider the taken-for-granted assumption that the more biometrics are collected from refugees the better. This should be a starting point to review the risks of identification of data traceable to individuals and that of anonymous data. So far we have paid attention to refugee digital bodies and digital dead bodies – but what about abandoned digital bodies?

Katja Lindskov Jacobsen holds a PhD in International Relations from Lancaster University. She is a Senior Researcher at the University of Copenhagen, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. Her research focuses on security and intervention. 

Karl Steinacker is an expert on issues relating to forced migration, humanitarian aid and digital identity and trust. He has worked in the aid and development industry for more than 30 years, including four different UN agencies and the German Humanitarian Aid. As a manager and diplomat of the UNHCR, he was for several years in charge of registration, biometrics, and the digital identity of refugees. He currently works as Digital Advisor for the International Civil Society Centre (ICSC).

What is killing humanitarian aid workers?

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Late into a stifling Khartoum night, I sat glued to my phone. I was tracking the desperate, and ultimately failed, attempt to rescue my friend and counterpart as head of the United Nations mission in Baghdad, Sergio Vieira de Mello. I knew many of the 22 who were killed by an Al-Qaeda bomb on that August 19th, 2003. This is now commemorated as World Humanitarian Day, honouring all aid workers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of humanity.

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An MSF health worker examines a malnourished child. Image credit: UK Department for International Development/CC BY 2.0

Last month, three Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff in Tigray joined a lengthening list of deaths. The Aid Worker Security Database records over 6,000 casualties since 1997. This is no doubt an underestimate as many assaults are not notified.

Over the past decade, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been the most dangerous locations. But relief work can be risky anywhere. In 2020, there were 276 major attacks across 40 countries, 108 frontline workers were killed, 242 wounded and 125 kidnapped.

The means of killing reflect contemporary forms of fighting. Humanitarian workers have been beaten, stabbed and shot. They’ve also faced shelling, explosives and aerial bombardment. Survivors often carry the long-term burden of post-traumatic psychosocial dysfunction.

In the pandemic age, an extra twist has been added. Disgruntlement with social restrictions, financial burdens and fears around COVID-19 and Ebola have put humanitarian health workers in the cross-hairs.

Has the humanitarian enterprise got more dangerous?

Armed conflicts have shifted from fewer set-piece confrontations between states to numerous and confused confrontations among many types of state and non-state armed groups. These extract more casualties among civilians because they are increasingly targetted. In contrast, today’s soldiers are better protected in their armour. Or they sit behind computer screens, launching missiles and drones from a safe distance.

In contrast, there are more and more aid workers at chaotic frontlines. They are pushed by social expectations to ensure that all suffering is relieved. They face a number of other challenges too. These include fierce funding competition among humanitarian organisations, a sceptical public seeking hard evidence of suffering, and a jaded media that needs more reality reporting.

As more aid workers tread in places previous ones did not dare, it is unsurprising if some come to harm.

The impact of protection provisions?

In theory, this is a manageable risk, as the sanctity of humanitarians is recognised by customary norms in all cultures. These are further codified into specific provisions to protect aid workers. For instance, in the Geneva Conventions on international humanitarian law, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, UN Security Council Resolutions, and national criminal laws.

Additionally, the humanitarian business is more professionalised nowadays through risk assessments, special equipment, security protocols and training.

Unfortunately, the perverse effect is not to reduce risk but to transfer it. That happens when ultra-cautious employers keep back expatriates and push local staff to take their place. Between 80% and 90% of those killed or injured are nationals. They are less well protected, paid and insured, and their families are compensated less generously. At a time of much debate on “decolonising aid”, this raises uncomfortable ethical questions.

Is eroding trust placing humanitarians in danger?

In any case, neither laws nor tools guarantee safety if the basis of trust which underpins the humanitarian endeavour is eroded. Research indicates widespread suspicion of the motives and practices of international humanitarianism. This is not helped by disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theorists.

Unfortunately, there is occasional substance behind the smoke that poisons the public mind. For example, security operatives under cover of a fake humanitarian vaccination programme managed to kill Osama bin Laden. According to the Guardian investigation, the vaccination was a cover for obtaining the DNA of his family during the gathering of intelligence to establish whether Bin Laden was indeed living in that compound. It was not used to get soldiers into the compound during the actual kill mission.

But this endangered normal vaccinators and undermined polio eradication in Pakistan. In neighbouring Afghanistan, joint military-civilian “hearts and minds” operations have exposed humanitarian workers and their beneficiaries to Taliban attacks. There is a polarised debate among humanitarians on the appropriateness of armed escorts for relief convoys and operations.

The humanitarian mission depends on free access anywhere to anybody in desperate need. But this consensus is undermined when there are perceived double standards that betray the bedrock humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality.

For example, the UN Security Council has been clashing over cross-border access to Syria while Tigray’s 5.2 million hungry, hurt and displaced have yet to receive formal attention by either the UN Security Council or the African Union.

Global humanitarian assistance appeals are often skewed in favour of crises that achieve political or public prominence and not on the objective basis of need. Under such circumstances – when humanitarian aid is used by world powers for political leverage – and the hard-pressed victims of brutalities can’t be assured of fair treatment, why should aid workers be especially respected and protected?

Meanwhile, amid a growing culture of impunity, combatants are emboldened to behave badly because there are rarely any prosecutions and sanctions for violations of humanitarian laws. This a direct risk to aid workers who happen to be in the wrong place.

Of course, every aid worker lost in the crossfire of a conflict is a tragedy. When they are deliberately targeted, it is an outrage. But, considering the inconsistencies and discontent around modern humanitarian policies and practices, what is noteworthy is not the numbers killed but their relative rarity.

It appears that the protection of genuine humanitarians ultimately rests on the integrity of their actions, underpinned by a universal instinctive belief in the sanctity of humanitarian work. Undermining that through manipulating the humanitarian enterprise for other ends is the most important risk faced by all Good Samaritans.

A version of this blog also appeared on The Conversation and can be accessed here. This blog is published here with the permission of the author.

Is Russia moving towards a compromise on humanitarian aid to Syria?

The United Nations Security Council is set to make a decision on the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria by 10 July. The decision comes almost one year on from the compromised extension to Resolution 2533, which approved the delivery of aid into Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing for a further year.

Russia is again at the centre of contention and the primary focus of the discord is again the delivery of aid through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into the rebel-controlled Idlib province. Many stakeholders are worried that Moscow might insist on closing the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the quasi-legalistic grounds of upholding Syria’s sovereignty and thus block a new extension of Resolution 2533.

In this latest blog for the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Middle East Centre, Research Professor Pavel Baev argues there may be good reason to now believe Russia is maneuvering towards a compromise supporting the extension of Resolution 2533.

Baev argues the context of the issue has changed for Moscow since 2020, and points to a difference in the situation in Syria, the sharp escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in April-May, and the stabilisation of the situation around the rebel-controlled Idlib province as having changed the context of the Syrian issue from Moscow’s point of view.

Read Pavel Baev’s full blog post here.

Humanitarian Wearables and the Future of Aid in the Global Data Economy

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This text first appeared on the Global Policy blog and is re-posted here. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO/UiO) examines the politics of humanitarian wearables to understand more about how digitization is reshaping the nature and relations of aid.

Photo: Inge Knoff via Flickr

Utopian visions for change. The rise of a global data economy has engendered intense engagements with new patterns of digital extraction and surveillance, giving rise to terms such as ‘data colonialism’ and ‘algorithmic fairness’.  In the aid sector, the onset of ‘digital humanitarianism’  has produced a significant amount of hype with frequent promises that the latest digital device or platform will be a ‘game changer’.  In a highly  influential report from 2013 called ‘Humanitarianism in the network age’  OCHA, the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs proclaimed that everyone agrees that technology has changed ‘how people interact with each other and how power is distributed’. The report concludes that the turn to technology would lead to a fundamental shift in power from capitals and headquarters to the people aid agencies aim to assist. In 2020, it is safe to say that this is not quite how things worked out. At the same time, there has been fundamental changes in how the sector engages with the people it aims to protect and assist.   

Small devices, big governance questions. This blog discusses the emergence of ‘humanitarian wearables’ and how the meshing of digital devices and data extraction in the humanitarian context engenders new questions with respect to the nature of aid. Wearables placed on beneficiaries can be used for tracking and protecting the health, safety and nutrition of aid recipients. UNICEF’s 2015 ‘Wearables for Good’ challenge showcased numerous applications with important humanitarian purposes. One of the winners was a necklace tracking infant immunizations. However, while this type of device has also – somewhat predictably- been hailed as a ‘game changer’ , I suggest that this time it’s true- but that the game changing is of a different nature: What needs to be understood is that, in ‘the making’ of humanitarian wearables, over time, the product will be the data produced by beneficiaries wearing tracking devices, not the wearables themselves. 

What is a wearable. Operating on the developing interfaces between bio and sensor technology, wearables provide measurement, selection, screening, legibility, calculability and visibility. Tracking operates through and upon multiple layers: general biodata, such as height, weight, gender, age and race; bodily fluids, including blood, sweat, sperm and tears; and the capture of individual characteristics, including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice and face recognition. These are conceptualized as smart devices that can be placed on or inside aid recipients’ bodies for many purposes, including tracking and protecting health, safety and nutrition. This may involve delivering or monitoring reproductive health, producing security and accountability through more efficient registration, or monitoring or delivering nutrition. While the sociological literature on tracking devices, focusing on individual self-tracing and consumer behavior is large and growing, little critical scholarly attention has been paid to the use of tracking devices in the Global South, and none at all to their use in the humanitarian context. In contrast, the deployment of wearables in emergencies entails deployment in contexts where there are deep, extra-democratic power differences between beneficiaries and structurally unaccountable humanitarian actors, donors and private sector actors.

A complicated past. The humanitarian sector has long used wristbands to control and care for beneficiaries. A key objective of international refugee management is to reduce fraud, one type of which is repeated registration by the same individual, or registration by those who do not qualify as recipients. In the past, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has tried to avoid multiple registrations by using stamps, wristbands, photographs, fingerprints or biometrics. The historical use of wristbands raises questions about potentially repressive aspects of contemporary humanitarian use of wearables. According to UNHCR, wristbands identify each individual claiming to be a refugee, limit the recycling of the refugee population, serve as distribution ‘cards’, and give everyone better access to food and other assistance. They are, then, a tool for protecting the most vulnerable. Wristbands are considered a comparatively low-tech, low-cost, low-trauma method of fixing. At the same time, wristbands are then clearly a technology of exclusion, and has also been commonly used in extreme registration contexts, such as those involving enclosure systems – the herding of people into a confined space for registration. This complicated historical baggage calls into question the idea of humanitarian wearables as a uniquely benevolent technology.

Gadgets not structural change. Wearables are best understood as part of a process of miniaturization of the architecture of aid:  As observed by Collier et al. (2017), the grand aid schemes of yesterday are today found as gadgets. Small technologies of government now permeate the field of international aid. The smallness of these devices stand in contrast to the massive modernist projects of the period of technological imperialism: wearables are part of a general trend in aid, whereby “tremendous intellectual and moral energy, as well as the financial and organizational resources, being devoted to inventing and disseminating … micro-endeavors”. While not designed to provide paradigm shifts, the devices are surrounded by what the authors describe as “salvational talk”. The underlying motif here is “a dream of scaling up micro-technologies to have macro effects.”  Discourses surrounding these goods are free of talk of social justice, focusing on devices that can achieve benefits without “the messy complications and entanglements of collective action”.

Profit and the private sector. This perspective on technology is part of a broader culture shift taking place regarding the permissibility and necessity of private sector collaboration to achieve success. At the same time, the humanitarian sector remains uneasy about the idea of profit.  The sizeable academic literature on humanitarian goods has so far given little attention to how the incorporation of international aid into the global data economy changes this equation.

My concern is not only how humanitarian wearables can turn the basic relationships of the aid sector upside down, but how we fail to recognize this development.  The OCHA report promised ‘a fundamental shift in power’.  Perhaps it is possible to talk about a ‘further shift in power’ instead. I propose that a proliferation of wearable technologies in the humanitarian space will necessarily engender important questions about the nature and meaning of aid and about how we understand the elements of the key humanitarian relationships: who donates, who aids and who gives. Humanitarian aid – at least by donors and humanitarian actors – is presented as a one-directional activity premised on notions of charity and financial generosity. With the rise of wearables, this relationship is turned on its head, if we recognize the central premise of the global data economy: that it is the beneficiary data that is the product, not the tracking device.

Aid access challenges in Afghanistan

NCHS’s Arne Strand (Deputy Director, CMI) provided comments to the analysis Challenges around aid in Afghanistan, published in the humanitarian news and analysis service, IRIN. The analysis discusses the challenges of aid access, risk management and monitoring in Afghanistan after the handover of security by NATO-led ISAF to Afghan Security Forces.

Reminding of the fragmentation within Afghanistan, Strand anticipates that serious NGOs with knowledge and dedicated staff will remain, but that “monitoring capacity will need a boost in the current environment.”

The author, John James, states that: “To face the future security challenges, analysts suggest a range of measures, from negotiating with a broader set of stakeholders, to using cash-transfer schemes, remote management, third party monitoring, and having a greater tolerance for risk, allied with risk mitigation measures.”

Read the complete analysis here.

Read Arne Strand’s recent Chatham House briefing paper on innovative aid delivery here.