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Data Protection: The Role of Humanitarian Actors

Written by: Inomusa Ndlovu

On the 12th of June 2021, Daniel Eichner of In-Sight Collaborative in collaboration with Michael Terell, Randolph Rodriguez and Debbie Reynolds of Pulse Connect hosted a webinar on Data in the humanitarian sector. The webinar aimed to conscientize humanitarian organizations and workers on how to raise the standard of data privacy and protection within the sector. The webinar covered different aspects of data privacy, ranging from securing data and privacy rights to data ethics and responsibility in the humanitarian sector as well as regulations and consideration in data privacy.

Secure Data and Privacy Rights

Michael Terrell, highlighted the importance of securing data autonomy within the humanitarian sector, pointing out how data retention and migratory pathways are a taxing process. People lose their documentation in the process of displacement or migration, as a result it is important that data is saved in a way that it is protected from potential loss or damage. Decentralization of data, particularly through the use of electronic or technological tools, allows for portability, consequently ensuring secure and efficient access for those who are in the migratory pathways.Data should be stored in a manner that will make it easy to verify while one is moving.

Challenges in Data Protection

There are a number of hurdles that migrants face in their migratory journey such as access to resources, particularly the translation of documents from one language to the other, based on the location of transit or destiny. Poor access to literacy mechanisms in terms of translation is a huge obstacle in mobility, as in often cases, google translate is not reliable in translating different language dialects. There is a need for humanitarian workers to take cognizance of the impact of push backs on migrants, these may result in arbitrary arrests and confiscation of gadgets making it difficult for someone to verify their documentation.

The downside of the humanitarian sector stems from the failure of humanitarian actors such as healthcare providers, NGOs, volunteers, governments, journalists e.t.c to coordinate and have a cohesive approach to data retention. There exist parallel ways of data retention within different humanitarian sectors, with others using digital documentation while others still use analogue, this makes it difficult to coordinate documentation for migrants and displaced people while on different levels of their migratory journey. In addition to that, it is of paramount importance that humanitarian actors have access to training in data ethics and responsibilities to ensure that migrant information is not easily disseminated without authorization. When personal data is shared there should be assurance that the data will not be passed on to a third party, humanitarian actors should have a level of responsibility and transparency in the handling of personal data.

“When you do pass off a piece of information to someone you are assisting, make sure you are doing it in a way or format that they can secure it, protect it and keep it with them” : Michael Terell

Laws and Regulations on Data Protection

Privacy laws and regulations differ depending on one’s geographic or country location. Debbie Reynolds emphasized on the importance of being aware of different privacy laws that apply in different countries, as well as being conscious of how data is handled, disseminated and protected within the existing laws and regulations.

“Don’t share passwords, if you are in a situation where you have to use passwords consider changing them regularly to ensure no one can get in and do identity theft": Debbie Reynolds

The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) is a European Union law that regulates both private and individual data protection and privacy, it is also a standard foundation for data privacy laws in different countries. Humanitarian sectors that operate outside the European Union can use it to familiarise themselves with basic privacy regulations. It is thus important to respect public-private partnership in the humanitarian sector that volunteers and different participants are involved hence the need to raise awareness on the need for data privacy and securing refugees or patients information.

"There is a need for a massive act of coordinated effort, globally, in which everyone connected via the internet respects privacy, respects the data and most importantly understands that the data you make is a part of you, it is your digital twin...": Randolph Rodriguez

Humanitarian actors play an important part in migration pathways, as such they have access to sensitive and private information on the people they are in contact with. It is therefore important that there is maximum responsibility in the handling of that data, this can be achieved through education on data ethics and responsibility. Humanitarian organisations and workers should also make sure that data laws and regulations of the countries they work in are followed in order to avoid losing important information as a result of violation of cyber laws. Every humanitarian sector needs to have its data privacy and protection laws that guide their employees or volunteers in better handling of personal and organisation’s data.


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