The humanitarian metadata problem: ‘Doing no harm’ in the digital era (October 2018)
Digital trails could endanger people receiving humanitarian aid, ICRC and Privacy International find
Geneva (ICRC) – The humanitarian sector’s growing use of digital and mobile technologies creates records that can be accessed and misused by third parties, potentially putting people receiving humanitarian aid at risk, a joint report from Privacy International and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has found.
The report – The humanitarian metadata problem: ‘Doing no harm’ in the digital era – explains how third parties could, for example, look at the metadata of someone’s mobile telephone messages to infer details like sleep patterns, travel routines or frequent contacts. That kind of information could pose risks to a person in a conflict environment.
“The ICRC hopes the report influences other humanitarian organizations to better protect their data,” said Charlotte-Lindsey Curtet, the organization’s newly appointed Director of Digital Transformation and Data. “Collaborating more closely with experts like Privacy International can help us to better mitigate these kinds of risks, in order to do no harm in a changing digital environment.”
The report details what metadata is collected or generated when humanitarian organizations use telecommunications, messaging apps or social media in their work. While the report doesn’t advocate for privacy or against surveillance, it demonstrates how ensuing surveillance risks could obstruct or threaten the neutral, impartial and independent nature of humanitarian action.
The report will be turned into a series of 1-minute videos breaking down what metadata are, and how they might be misused in the humanitarian sector. Watch the first one here and find the rest using #MetadataMatters.
To remedy this, the report recommends a more systematic mapping of who has access to what information in order to anticipate how individuals might be profiled or discriminated against. It also encourages humanitarian organisations to improve digital literacy among their staff, volunteers – and most importantly, the people they serve.
“Technology is crucial if we want to engage with and better serve the needs of people we can’t physically access,” said Philippe Stoll, Head of Communication Policy and Support. “But using these platforms means creating an information trail we neither own nor control, and that’s something we must get better at anticipating.”
The report’s findings and recommendations will form part of the discussions at the ICRC’s Symposium on Digital Risks in Situations of Armed Conflict, taking place 11-12 December in London. Nearly 200 participants from humanitarian organisations, United Nations agencies, private tech companies, academia and government will attend.
For further information, please contact: Philippe Stoll, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 79 536 92 49