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The Privacy Advisor | Doing data protection well in humanitarian efforts Related reading: Using big data to fight Zika


Whether in the throes of cleaning up after a hurricane or a pitched battle, people need help from humanitarian organizations: food, clothing, a place to sleep. In providing that help, humanitarian organizations may need to gather a fair bit of personal data in order to keep track of who has received what or simply to make sure no one gets left behind.

“One of the many differences in the way we would look at data protection in a humanitarian context,” said Massimo Marelli, head of the data protection office at the International Committee of the Red Cross, “is based on the kind of dramatic implications on the lives of individuals. When we talk about ‘harm,’ we’re really talking about the possibility that the harm could be very severe, life and death, if the data is not handled properly.”

That kind of concern prompted Marelli to reach out in July of 2013 to Chris Kuner, co-director of the Brussels Privacy Hub and a longtime legal voice in the space, to collaborate on a framework for doing privacy and data protection at the ICRC. After creating a program both of them were happy with, however, they realized the work might be valuable to others doing similar efforts, who might not have highly developed data protection teams or the budgets to delve deeply into privacy operations.

Thus, they’ve packaged their work and released it as the Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action. The two will be joined in a web conference Tuesday to present the topic by Daniel Scarnecchia, who works at the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at Harvard, among other posts.

Marelli said it’s not hard to get humanitarian organizations to engage with the topic, as the protection of people and their fundamental rights is part and parcel of what these organizations do, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or top of mind out of the gate.

“Applying the principles of ‘do no harm’ in the context of new technologies is really challenging,” he said, “and data protection is a tool to make sure that we do no harm in a digital environment.”

Kuner is used to working with corporations as part of his private sector work. He called working with Marelli and the Red Cross “an eye-opener.”

“A lot of their work is in non-developed countries,” he said, “and there really may not be a rule of law — either no data protection law or, if one exists, it just exists on paper. A lot of organizations were confused. They knew they had to protect privacy. They knew it was part of their mandate to protect individuals. But they didn’t know what rules to follow.”

The handbook, then, can serve as a set of rules, Kuner said, based on international best practices that can be applied in situations where there is no applicable law.

“In the private sector,” Kuner said, “we’re fixated on this issue of whether this is personal data or not. In the humanitarian sector, sometimes it just really doesn’t matter. Maybe the Syrian army wants to bomb them but doesn’t know who they are. They just know there’s a large group of people there. It’s not about whether the data is identifiable or not. The issues that I’ve been used to in data protection get magnified and in some cases, they get taken to a whole new dimension than we’re used to.”

“These organizations,” he continued, “they see how important privacy is, and there’s a whole group of people emerging who have to deal with privacy. It’s similar to the DPO phenomenon, but there is a totally different set of issues that don’t match up one to one.”

If ever there was a collaborative environment with peers looking to help, though, it’s in the small community of people doing data protection work in humanitarian settings, so the hope is that sharing best practices can help get everyone up to speed as quick as possible.

“There are different levels of maturity in different organizations,” Marelli said. “We’re blessed to have a lot of support from management [at the ICRC] and have built a significant team, but there are other organizations that are struggling very much.” Hopefully, the handbook, and perhaps privacy professionals looking to lend a hand, can make it less of a struggle.

Photo credit: The National Guard Virgin Islands National Guard via photopin (license)


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