identity management humanitarian refugees biometrics identity verification

Biometrics in Humanitarian Efforts

Humanitarian organization work in extremely volatile situations. From refugee camps to war zones, officials must make decisions efficiently and thoughtfully. With precious data on the line, maintaining integrity while providing privacy, these organizations turn to biometrics for convenience and security. Here are some benefits and critiques of using biometric authentication programs in these organizations.

Uses of Biometrics in Humanitarian Organizations

Digital Identity through Biometrics

Under Article 6 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” Because of this stipulation, multiple NGOs and governments around the world banded together to create ID2020. The sole mission of this organization is to give every human a digital identity in order to advance their political, economic, and social opportunity.

The United Nations Refugee Agency is another organization helping displaced peoples around the world regain a sense of self. Within the last few years, it rolled out multiple biometric authentication programs for various purposes. In Uganda, the UNHCR piloted a program to improve assistance delivery and strengthen their data’s credibility. Through the use of iris scanners and a refugee database, officials hope to manage identity fraud while increasing the efficiency of ration distribution.

Technology Reuniting Families

Trace the Face, a program implemented by the International Committee of the Red Cross, has been reuniting families for decades. Today, with the of facial recognition, the program has been reuniting families even faster, some dating back to World War 2. The ubiquity of social media has allowed for worldwide searches to be done in less than a few minutes.

Now with the aid of biometric systems and refugee databases, organizations hope to reunite refugee families. In 2015 Bitnation created an emergency program for participants to register their ID without any formal affiliation with a state. Using Bitnation’s program, users can identify and connect with separated family members.

Security and Efficient Aid Distribution Through Blockchain

Through the Building Blocks Program, the World Food Programme is transforming the way agencies deliver aid. Using the Ethereum blockchain and biometric scanning, WFP ensures that more people will receive the food assistance they require. The public ledger of blockchain technologies grants refugees privacy while keeping WFP accountable for all transactions.

Critiques of Refugee Identity Management

While biometric authentication technology has become a powerful tool, its use in humanitarian efforts has little regulation. Multiple firms and agencies have critiqued how refugee data is handled by these systems, particularly when it comes to privacy and security.

The Notion of Existing Because of Biometrics

As ID2020 creates digital identities for millions around the world, refugees are instilled with the idea that someone doesn’t exist unless identifiable by a computer program. A recently published report of biometrics and humanitarian efforts by The Engine Room found that a Congolese refugee in Malawi told UNHCR staff “I can be someone now” after registering his biometrics. Other refugees comment that they “don’t know what it is for, but I do what UNHCR wants me to do.” This power structure of obtaining biometric data from refugees could be considered highly questionable.

Power Dynamics

An obvious critique of these programs is that they give little choice for a refugee to submit their biometrics. For someone whose sole focus for that day is to survive, giving one’s biometric info is an easy decision. Agency is rarely discussed when rolling out these biometric solutions. Without proper literacy or even agency, these refugees are unable to dictate who has access to their information or even where it ends up.

Elise Thomas writes how the Bangladeshi government was providing sanctuary to Rohingya refugees, but through a series of negotiations ended up sending refugees back to Myanmar, complete with their biometric data. Used to hasten aid distribution in Bangladesh, the biometric data of thousands of Rohingya refugees is now in the hands of a country who was previously accused of ethnically cleansing this population.

Efficacy of Biometrics

Biometric authentication can bring a whole new level of security to multiple populations when deployed thoughtfully. Multiple reports, however, criticize the efficiency of these programs. Joy Buolamwini examined the rate at which biometric systems are able to recognize women and people of color, and it was far lower than other gender and ethnic backgrounds. In a life or death situation where refugees are unable to identify themselves because of system failure, these programs must have a higher rate of accuracy.

A commonly touted benefit in biometric authentication is its efficiency. However, no official study has been done on the cost of biometric authentication programs for humanitarian organizations. “While a good number of stakeholders interviewed by the Engine Room perceived fraud to be a real problem,” notes Anna Kondakhchyan, “they were unable to put the problem into figures.” For non-profits that are already strapped for cash, buying biometric systems and having personnel trained to use them might be a costly business. Proper evaluation, without the influence of stakeholders pitching in uninformed ideas of biometrics, ensures that organizations can actually benefit from these programs.

For humanitarian efforts, there must be a conscientious implementation of biometric authentication projects. As biometric technologies become increasingly integrated with our daily lives and new regulations on data management emerge, these different deployment opportunities become possible. The lack of regulation and research of biometric technologies in the humanitarian sector fundamentally undermines the due diligence needed to be executed by these organizations. Biometric authentication is a powerful tool, but like all powerful tools, it needs to be deployed with the security and privacy of the individual put first.

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