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Humanitarianism in the Age of Cyber-warfare: Towards the Principled and Secure Use of Information in Humanitarian Emergencies

2014 — By UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Humanitarian assistance is driven by information. From early warnings to needs assessments to final evaluations, information determines priorities and resource allocation. In addition, a crisis drives people to collect and share personal information that they otherwise wouldn’t: the names of missing family, medical conditions and needs, and their current location and that of their homes. In fact, the humanitarian principle of impartiality, requiring aid to be given on the basis of need alone, makes this information essential.

However, the “Network Age” also comes with risks and challenges. A humanitarian crisis can create a justification for waiving concerns about how information is collected and used, even as cyber-warfare, digital crime and government surveillance rises, particularly in unstable contexts.

To deal with these challenges, UNOCHA’s publication, Humanitarianism in the Network Age, recommended that the humanitarian sector develop robust ethical guidelines for the use of information. It specifically called for “do no harm” standards that clearly address liability, privacy and security. This report looks in more depth at these issues and makes recommendations to ensure that emerging technology is used responsibly. 

This study highlights CaLP’s guidelines Protecting Beneficiary Privacy as an example of how humanitarian organisations are trying to put in place policies to ensure data is kept securely.