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Red Cross says data misuse 'life and death' matter for vulnerable

14 December 2019, MVT 12:12
This handout photo released on December 7, 2019 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shows American Red Cross personnel on site after a shooting incident at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida on December 6, 2019. - Three US Navy sailors were killed after a Saudi military student carried out a deadly shooting spree at a US naval base on December 6, 2019. (Photo by Handout / FBI / AFP) /
14 December 2019, MVT 12:12

The Red Cross has warned that data misuse is a "life and death" issue for people in need.

Aid groups are gathering increasing amounts of information about the people they help in order to streamline their work.

But Massimo Marelli, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross's Data Protection Office, told AFP the consequences of the information going astray needed to be taken much more seriously.

It could be a matter of "life and death", Massimo Marelli, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross's Data Protection Office, told AFP.

He and others in the international aid field are urging the creation of a "digital humanitarian space", in which data gathered for humanitarian purposes would be given the same level of international protection as hospitals and ambulances.

During a Red Cross and Red Crescent international conference in Geneva this week, experts pointed out that while abuse or misuse of personal information is a concern across society at large, the consequences of a humanitarian data breach can be particularly dire.

In a conflict situation, data gathered by aid groups to help find missing people, for instance, could be used by one faction to label them enemies who should be detained or killed.

Illicitly obtained details about the ethnic or religious make-up of a population in a certain area or camp could even expose entire groups to attack.

"The profiling and traceability of people who might be of interest to parties to a conflict is something that is highly problematic," Marelli said.

"The consequences are huge."

Red Cross and Red Crescent delegates along with officials from around the world took a step during this week's conference towards creating a digital safe-space for humanitarian data.

They agreed to tighten procedures and strengthen protections for data gathered in efforts to reunite families torn apart by conflict and natural disasters.

But the level of protection was subject to heated debate.

- 'Danger and opportunity' -

According to a source familiar with the discussions, the United States especially baulked at an original demand that states formally commit to not request access to data gathered by the Red Cross "for purposes incompatible with the solely humanitarian nature of the work of the movement."

Instead the final text adopted by consensus late Thursday merely "urges" countries to avoid such requests.

ICRC communications chief Ewan Watson told AFP in an email the organisation saw the resolution as "an important step forward in the critical debate on the protection of the humanitarian space for personal data."

The issue is controversial, with approaches to data protection varying widely in different countries, and with some states eager to mine the massive amounts of personal data gathered by humanitarians, in the name of national security or to deal with migration woes.

Catherine Andersen, a senior advisor at Norway's foreign ministry, who had a leading role in the efforts to find a consensus on the issue, said Norway was "pleased" with the outcome, but acknowledged the negotiations were "very challenging".

Others stressed the urgency of creating an airtight space around humanitarian data, to avoid causing harm and also to ensure that trust in aid workers gathering the information is not dangerously eroded.

"We are at a moment of immense danger and opportunity," said Nathaniel Raymond, a lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and advocate for digital security in human rights and humanitarian work.

- 'Space of war' -

The soaring ability to gather data across a host of connected mobile devices, as well as an explosion in computing power to quickly make sense of the information compiled, is helping increase efficiency and accountability across the humanitarian field.

The increasing use of direct cash transfers, through digital cards or by SMS, instead of food and other hand-outs to help displaced people and survivors of disasters cope, for instance, is seen as a more transparent form of aid delivery that also helps local businesses.

But the data generated with each transaction also provides information that could potentially be analysed to determine a person's religion, political affiliation and medical conditions.

Humanitarians' widespread embrace of highly personal biometric data to reliably identify aid recipients and keep track of what assistance has been given to whom is raising particular alarm.

Raymond warned that the opportunities for dangerous abuse of humanitarian data were "endless", with potentially horrific consequence.

"Say you are a commander in an army, whose child soldiers have been removed to be demobilised, and you want to know where they are to get them back, or say you want to target an ethnic group and want to know where a group resides," he said.

"This is a battle space, it is a space of war," he said, stressing the need for creating a safe humanitarian space for such data on par with the protections accorded to aid workers and facilities.

But the question remains, he said: "How do you put a Red Cross or a Red Crescent on a server?"

Geneva, Switzerland | AFP