Do No Digital Harm: Mitigating Technology Risks in Humanitarian Contexts
In humanitarian emergencies, tools like mobile phones and online platforms can offer great improvements for remote data collection and communication with communities, especially where aid access is limited due to high levels of insecurity. But while new technologies are increasingly receiving attention, discussions of risks often fall too short. Digital tools carry biases can complicate crisis dynamics and make aid actors and recipients susceptible to digital interception and surveillance. This paper discusses two types of known challenges with technology uses in humanitarian purposes: First, rushed or improper implementation can lead to problems or high long-term costs. Second, even seemingly successful innovations that are well received by stakeholders can create ‘digital harm’ that sometimes seems invisible. Technical vulnerabilities and even small mistakes can incur data breaches, interception and manipulation of information and malicious attacks on critical tools. Standards and good practices to prevent potential damage are not keeping up with the rapid speed of technology implementations. To contribute to emerging efforts in responsible data and responsible innovation, this paper develops 10 practice-based principles for humanitarians introducing technology to their work in conflict settings. The work is grounded in findings of a 3-year research project on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of aid in Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria.
In humanitarian emergencies, information communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and web-based platforms offer powerful tools for communicating with communities, remote needs assessments and data collection. A quickly growing literature confirms the benefits that ICTs can offer to aid efforts with regards to efficiency, effectiveness and accountability (Raftree and Bamberger 2014; Kalas and Spurk 2011). These promises are especially pronounced in insecure environments, where access constraints hinder aid actors from reaching local populations, such that digital channels could be the only way to send and receive critical information. At the same time, the potential consequences of implementing technology-based projects poorly or overseeing unintended consequences can be detrimental and sometimes lethal.
… which reminds us of the fact that peripheral populations are being subjected to more or less experimental technologies.
Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, The Politics of Humanitarian Technology (2015)
Recognizing the challenges and risks with technologies can help avoid pitfalls and unintended digital harm. ICTs are known to introduce complications in a number of ways: Digital tools themselves alter the interaction between aid staff and recipients, which can add to and exacerbate crises or conflict dynamics (Jacobsen 2015; Vazquez and Wall 2014; Altay and Labonte 2014). The digitization of communications introduces new security and privacy risks as data transmitted on electronic devices or networks becomes susceptible to third party interception and breaches, sometimes unnoticeably (Internews 2015; Schneier 2015). However, such challenges entangled with using ICT for humanitarian purposes have not been adequately researched or addressed in literature and practice. Although concrete proposals for new ethics and conventions to guide technology uses are increasingly considered necessary, they are holding off (Raymond and Card 2015a; Gilman and Baker 2014; Sandvik et al. 2014). While a number of promising initiatives develop guidelines and good practice lessons, they tend to focus on disaster settings, explicitly omit recommendations for complex, man-made emergencies (GSMA 2012; UAViators 2015; Madianou et al. 2015). In conflict zones, aid actors are left to make up rules as they go, or forfeit opportunities by opting against technologies altogether, but these decisions are typically not documented (Raymond et al. 2013; Steets et al. 2015). A better understanding of the perceived and real risks entangled in the use of ICT, as outlined here, can help inform a responsible, sustainable humanitarian technology practice that works in all settings.
This paper draws on finding of the 3-year research project ‘Secure Access in Volatile Environments (SAVE)’ that was undertaken by Humanitarian Outcomes (HO) and the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) with funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Part of the research assessed technologies that aid actors can use for monitoring and evaluation (M&E) in insecure and hard-to-reach areas. The research was undertaken in close collaboration with NGOs and UN agencies in Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and the Syria region with the aim to provide practical contributions. A ‘menu of technology options for monitoring’ introduces and explains select ICT tools in detail, zooming in on challenges in order to propose effective risk mitigation strategies. The menu and this paper recognize the significant potential technologies offer to humanitarian efforts, but caution against rushed implementation at the risk of overseeing severe challenges and limitations. A risk-aware approach to all new tools, especially those that are digital or data-based, can help aid actors assure they ‘do no digital harm.’
2.2 Technology Advantages
ICT in insecure environments
Technological tools for remote monitoring and communication in insecure environments: Types, uses, and challenges
Phone-based feedback mechanisms and two-way communication
Digital data collection with smartphones and tablet computers
Remote sensing with satellites or UAVs and location tracking (GPS)
Broadcasting and community production of radio shows
Where basic mobile phones are widely spread, they offer reliable channels to reach local communities. Calls, text messages and interactive voice recordings (IVR) can be processed by call centres or specialized software
Aid organizations can use digital data entry linked to electronic databases to replace paper-based survey instruments and create faster, more automatic data analysis. Small handhelds are also more unobtrusive than clipboards
High-resolution geospatial imagery analysed by experts can elucidate context conditions, observable changes and outcomes of interventions, as well as population movement. Radars and sensors can capture unique data
Broadcast radio can spread humanitarian information, conflict or aid delivery updates. To target information, aid staff can stream pre-recorded shows in select locations. Interactive radio shows station can also receive feedback
Complaints and information hotlines
Phone-based household surveys
Focal point reports
Surveys and questionnaires
Registration and distribution reporting
GPS- and timestamps in surveys
Observation and analysis with satellite
UAV imagery for close-up analysis
Outreach, advocacy and engagement
Publicize/explain feedback channels
⊗ Proliferation of parallel hotlines can lead to confusion
⊗ Security and privacy risks to staff and aid recipients
⊗ Risk of bias towards those owning phones (often men)
⊗ Volatility due to poor infrastructure
⊗ Devices can raise the visibility of aid staff and mistrust among authorities and locals
⊗ Competing tools can cause fragmentation
⊗ Privacy/security risks digitizing data: theft, interception, surveillance, etc.
⊗ Lack of guidance/established practice
⊗ Can expose vulnerable groups
⊗ High costs can deter organizations as effect and return are not always clear
⊗ Dependency on image providers, data brokers and experts
⊗ One-way radio broadcasts cannot record feedback
⊗ Difficult to measure impact and identify the audience
⊗ Security risks due to high visibility: interception possible
⊗ Gender bias towards male voices
ICTs in humanitarian action
Radio remains the most widely used technology reaching the largest number of people in remote areas around the world, especially in insecure environments. Broadcasts can be used to circulate important announcements but also to explain aid efforts and feedback mechanisms to crisis-affected communities. Radio programming itself can be used for active two-way engagement, involving or supporting communities in creating their own shows and stations. This can provide interesting forms of gathering feedback in and of itself, which some aid agencies are pioneering. Still, in humanitarian programming and monitoring especially, radio has not received mainstream attention. Radio is often seen as a one-way outreach tool, which is not intuitively ideal for M&E. However, a number of projects have shown that radio is easy to use and can complement feedback mechanisms and enable aid actors to seek new forms of input. It offers great potential for aid accountability and community resilience.
Wrapping up with this fourth reliable and likely underestimated tool, the wealth and variety of various technologies, with many news ones yet to come, is evident.
2.3 Digital Disasters
Implementation errors and inherent flaws of ICT
Challenge 1: Mishaps and mistakes
Challenge 2: Negative impact of new devices
Challenge 3: Loss of trust and reputation
Challenge 4: Digital vulnerabilities and digital harm
Challenge 5: Privacy risks and irresponsible digital data
Challenge 6: Increasing inequality and power imbalances
Challenge 7: Dependence on non-humanitarian actors and sectors
Challenge 8: Double-standards and hypocrisy compromise humanitarian principles
2.4 Mitigation Measures
Risk awareness aids responsibility
Risk mitigation for humanitarian ICT uses: why and what
1. Study the context before choosing tools
The information and technology ecosystems determine whether a new tool or approach can have a positive impact in the long term. Hotlines, for example, only work where locals have and use phones. Satellite images only make sense when skies are clear and smartphones should only be used in culturally appropriate ways
Be very clear about the information you need to gather or spread. Assess closely what type of information and knowledge travels via which channels in your context. Understand who influences and spreads information and can impact it
2. Involve all users actively
Any tool or technology is only as effective as those meant to use it understand - and use - it. This involves all: programme staff, supervisors, data collectors, local communities, those processing the data and those making decisions based on it
Work with representatives of the different user groups when inventing, designing and testing the tools. Focus groups or interviews and, as much as possible, collaboration can help assure that ICT is usable and appropriate in all ways, including handling, pricing, language, etc.
3. Establish informed consent practices
Achieving informed consent is especially difficult when aid actors themselves do not know all the risks involved with technologies and digitization. Because there is currently little best practice, aid actors need to handle recipients’ data carefully
Agree on mechanisms and standards by which to explain the risks involved with handling survey responses or phone requests digitally. Do this well before disaster hits
4. Provide back-up channels and alternatives
Technology-based efforts need to be prepared for the worst cases including energy outages, network disruption, theft of devices, software jams and other complications
Have analogue alternatives in place to turn to when the new tool does not work. Also, assure that every online function has an offline option. And do carry extra batteries
5. Use security-conscious, free and open source software
With technology, intuition and observation are not enough to know who can gain access to information, as calls and electronically submitted data can be intercepted, often unnoticeably. The responsibility to safeguard personal data and keep it away from third parties lies with the aid organizations, so the choice of technology matters
Use only those tools that independent security experts can review. Such ‘free and open source software’ (or FOSS) options exist for moth relevant ICT tools
6. Minimize and self-limit data
Even with the best tools, ensuring digital security is extremely difficult, also for experts. It is safe to assume that every data point that has been digitized can be copied or stolen. Even seemingly harmless datasets can reveal people when combined with other data
Collect only on a ‘need to know’ basis. Be clear which information gaps you are trying to fill and identify which data points you need to collect. Similarly, define access levels clearly. Who needs to see individual records and where do aggregate numbers suffice?
7. Invest in building acceptance
Local authorities can ban technology tools and restrict aid access. Armed groups could even target them. Local communities may lose trust if they do not trust the technologies
Plan trainings and meetings with local staff, authorities as well as community members. Explain what you are using and let them see and perhaps test the tool themselves
8. Pool funds and risk
Technology implementations typically take more time and high investments. Running out of budget half-way and halting projects can create inconsistency and further risk trust
Collaborate with other aid actors in the area of relevant private companies. Share the investment in tools and seek agreeable mechanisms for sharing them and the data
9. Apply humanitarian principles to technology
The humanitarian principles were developed long before the risks affiliated with digital communications were known. Their maintenance in online context must be explored
Safeguard the principles when working with new tools and partners. What does neutrality mean in the context of algorithms that sieve through information? How can you maintain independence when working together with private sector companies? Are biases towards those willing and able to use phones, for example, overshadowing universality?
Back to low - tech — and sometimes no - tech
Four scenarios when technology should NOT be used, but low-tech or analogue methodologies are recommended
Data is so sensitive that it could put people at risk
Acceptance is low and could hamper efforts: bans, suspicion, stigma, etc.
Infrastructure makes it impossible or costly: network connectivity, low spread of phones
Capacity constraints mean it cannot be guaranteed in the long term
Specifically, the following recommendations apply to the different technology types:
…use phone-based systems to collect sensitive data that could put beneficiaries at risk. Information related to gender-based violence, the location of persecuted people or financial and health information that could cause stigmatization cannot be reliably secured when transferred through phone networks.
…use it for short-term projects or without continuity. The set-up and familiarization costs only pay off if phone-based systems are used over a long time or for several projects.
…create a new mechanism where other, similar mechanisms already exist or are planned. With too many systems in place, aid recipients can be confused and are less likely to use any.
…use it if you do not have the capacity to process feedback and follow-up. Beneficiaries will expect follow-up when using phone systems. Lack of response can harm trust and reputation.
…simply replace other monitoring or feedback approaches. Phone systems are not sufficient in themselves as phone ownership is biased and network coverage uneven.
…use digital devices, Internet or phone networks if they are in any way banned or compromised in the targeted area. It is not worth the benefit if carrying the tool could lead to expulsion or mistrust and false accusations.
…use smartphones or tablets if they are very uncommon or clash with cultural norms and standards. If the devices can create distrust or suspicion among local communities, they should not be used. Their stigma could hamper data entry.
…use where there is no phone or internet connection and/or electricity at all. Lack of connectivity which would make it challenging to make the most from the tool.
…use satellite or UAV imagery and GPS-tracking if no guidelines on their use are in place and the potential risks to local communities are high or unclear. Records of the location of vulnerable, persecuted or starving populations or of food delivery trucks and critical infrastructure can seriously endanger people and individuals if in the hands of their enemies.
…work with UAVs or other remote sensing technologies if local stakeholders seriously object to their use. Remote sensing technologies can be associated with spying. Using them against the will of local authorities or communities can erode trust and put operations and staff at risk.
…invest in technologies where weather or context conditions are prohibitive and projects and their effects cannot be seen from the sky. Satellites cannot see through clouds and in some instances regulation might inhibit use. Similarly, where projects can be seen, but there is no clear idea what visually observable impact would be expected, remote sensing may not be a worthwhile investment.
…commit to remote sensing when costs for images and analysis are disproportionate to the overall budget. As of yet, evidence for overall gains or improved decision-making thanks to satellite use remains limited. Until then, their use should only be considered where costs are proportionate to overall project budgets and the expected gains.
…broadcast information on radio when it reveals the location of vulnerable populations.
…set up new radio programmes when you cannot guarantee long-term commitment to cater to the need of your listeners. It is not worthwhile to build and audience if the show soon ends.
…use radio to support monitoring efforts when you cannot combine it with other tools and approaches to receive responses to issues raised and questions asked in the shows.
…invest in independent radio stations or shows when you cannot engage local communities. Their help in designing and running radio programmes is critical to assure local interest and relevance.
2.5 Looking Ahead
Scrutiny on using ICT in conflict settings can shed light and insight relevant to the broader field of working with technologies for humanitarian, development and human right purposes. However, the field of practice and literature on technologies used for humanitarian purposes and to communicate with local communities needs to be expanded to examine and address risks and mitigation measures. The particular focus on ICT for monitoring aid in access-constrained insecure settings in this paper provided a lens to view some of the practical and ethical concerns with using technologies to handle data of vulnerable populations. Other technologies relevant to humanitarian action include hardware (such as 3D printers and biometric ATMs), medical research (such as genetically modified food and new vaccines), social media (particularly platforms, messaging apps, and so-called ‘big data’) and a range of applications for coordinating, planning and implementing aid delivery. Many of the concerns around digital and physical risks outlined here similarly apply to these technologies. In the future, findings from the research underlying this paper as well as alerts and suggestions from other sources should be investigated further both through analysis and cross-comparisons with other fields and through practical sessions, workshops and discussions. These can contribute to the growing field of a responsible and sustainable use of technology for the benefit of conflict- and disaster-affected communities. They can inform aid efforts that safeguard the humanitarian principles and in their work ‘do no harm’ and do no digital harm either.
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