Next steps for the Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action

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On 23 October 2018, the Brussels Privacy Hub and the International Committee of the Red Cross hosted a side event at the 40th edition of the annual International Conference of Data Protection & Privacy Commissioners (ICDPPC). The event launched the working series to update the Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action (Handbook) which was published in July 2017. The revised and more extensive version of the Handbook is due to be issued in January 2020.

The discussion about the issues that urgently need to be addressed in the new edition of the Handbook was opened by Yves Dricot (Deputy Director-General of the Directorate General Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid, Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Massimo Marelli (Head of Data Protection Office, International Committee of the Red Cross) and Christopher Kuner (Co-Director, Brussels Privacy Hub). Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion (Global South Programme Lead, Privacy International) provided a balanced moderation to the discussion, adding relevant insight about existing and emerging data protection challenges for humanitarian organisations. In their contributions, panellists Christina Vasala Kokkinaki (Legal Officer, International Organisation for Migration), Stuart Campo (Researcher, Signal Program on Human Security and Technology, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative) and Wojciech Wiewiórowski (Assistant European Data Protection Supervisor) emphasised that while there is a legal vacuum in which humanitarian organisations often operate, there is a need for examples of good practice and guidance such as the ones provided in the Handbook that would facilitate the use of technology and application of data protection principles in the humanitarian field.

Acknowledging the added value of the Handbook: the panellists recognised that the first edition of the Handbook provided guidance to the humanitarian sector on the application of data protection principles that was missing at that time. The Handbook was well-received among humanitarian actors as it included guidelines on the application of data protection principles and requirements when technologies of relevance for the humanitarian sector are adopted, such as Cash Transfer Programmes and Biometrics.

Technology in the humanitarian sector: it was commonly recognised that new technologies allow humanitarian organisations to better read fragmented conflicts, reach more people in protracted crises and help beneficiaries reconnect with their family and friends. However, deploying new tools without fully understanding the risks and possible negative outcomes can also endanger those in need. Therefore, the right balance must be found between the excitement of implementing new technologies impulsively and carelessly and the overcautious attitude of avoiding new technologies because they might be hard to understand, giving up the benefits they can bring.

In this regard, the Handbook offers guidelines to humanitarian organisations on how to protect data in accordance with general data protection principles and the consequences and applications of specific technologies. Guidelines in this area are much needed not only due to the constant technological changes that we experience today, but also due to the change in the characteristics of crisis and conflicts and in the needs of beneficiaries of humanitarian aid.

Individuals first: the panellists recurrently affirmed during the discussion that humanitarian organisations work to protect those in need and that all efforts in relation to technology should aim at furthering this protection. In this regard, this is not a sector in which it is possible to try out new technologies without having a full understanding of the possible outcomes. Misusing tools in humanitarian actions can put lives in danger. It was also noted that while data protection relates exclusively to personal data, the use of technology can also harm communities (e.g., certain groups) and this should also be considered by humanitarian organisations when dealing with new tools. Furthermore, to ensure that beneficiaries are not harmed by the use of technology, it is essential that humanitarian actors engage in discussions with other sectors to help shape the future of technology and the development of tools that do no harm.

Working together for a second edition: The first edition of the Handbook was well-received by humanitarians and feedback sent to the working group shows that it has been used in practice. However, due to constant changes in the technologies that are coming together to form humanitarian programs, there is a need to update the Handbook to include new chapters on different technological tools that can be used in the sector. The second working series also offers an opportunity for the Handbook to include more practical examples that can further guide those working in the field.

In order to achieve its goal and provide relevant and up-to-date guidelines on data protection for humanitarian actors that could be applied worldwide, the working series for the second edition of the Handbook is going to bring together different stakeholders to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the most pressing issues in data protection affecting the humanitarian sector. In this regard, the working group for the second edition has been expanded to include more representatives of humanitarian organisations, data protection authorities, academics, NGOs, and experts on relevant topics.

For more information, please visit the BPH website or contact the BPH at info@brusselsprivacyhub.org.

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