While we focus on one dumb tweet, the global push to obtain and share the personal data of millions of refugees without their consent continues unabated and unchallenged.
Apparently, Melissa Fleming accidentally shared the personal details of a refugee girl in a promotional tweet for UNHCR. Personally, I was rather surprised at the blowback, because UNHCR collects and shares sensitive personal data about refugees with both private companies and governments all the time with near impunity and with only a passing gesture towards ethics. I was surprised to see experts complaining about a breach of refugee privacy and confidentiality because in today’s data-hungry world, refugees have no privacy. Take, for example, UNHCR and WFP’s program to retinal scan refugees in Jordan in exchange for food rations. To read glowing media accounts of this program, you would think that refugee privacy is a non-issue, like pollution from the poop of flying pegasus unicorns.
To hear aid agencies and donor governments tell it, there’s nothing wrong with non-voluntary retinal scans and one would be foolish to even question the wisdom of creating a global database of refugee eye scans. Forget about the fact that none of the agencies has ever demonstrated that it is capable of keeping such information secure, there is no proper set of terms and conditions as to how this information is used and shared. Collecting sensitive personal data from refugees is often painted as a technical tool that will help streamline aid; discussion of problems with collecting biometrics is usually limited to the technological challenges, or the possibility for “mistakes.” Rarely discussed is the fact that the personal data of millions of people are being collected, stored and shared by unaccountable international agencies, often working with private tech companies, at the behest of donor governments with murky agendas. For example, why might the EU be interested in a database of fingerprints of people from various West African countries? Might that not help identify people for deportation?
Living Under the Techno-Humanitarian Super-State
While many of us are concerned about data privacy, most of us have control over enough aspects of our lives that we can, if we wish, take measures to protect ourselves. It’s not possible to prevent the government from collecting your personal data — we all gave up that right to privacy long ago. Yet many of use can influence how the government uses our data, at least in theory, through voting. As for non-governmental data collection, its still possible to opt out. For example, it’s possible to go off Facebook or limit the data collected by our mobile phone carriers. But refugees have no power to limit the power of aid agencies and others to collect their data. Refugees have no choice but to exchange their retinal scans for food. The aid agency or UN serves in a quasi-governmental role, but without the same level of accountability. After the retinal scan is collected by the UN, for example, refugees have zero say over how it is used and who it is shared with. In many cases biometric data is collected by external vendors, sometimes even private companies. What happens to the data then? Who knows?
We are all used to our data being collected, stored and used by our own governments, but increasingly, the data of millions who have had contact with an international organization is being collected, stored and used by other governments and by these agencies without any agreed upon rules or standards. At least Facebook is required to release information on its data-collection policies to the public and, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to use Facebook any more. Refugees are being forced to give up their personal information in exchange for food.
A lack of transparency pervades this entire system of data management by humanitarian agencies. It’s become clear that some data is being shared across borders and given to governments that ordinarily would not have access to it. Imagine if you were sitting in London and your fingerprints were being shared with the government of Australia, a country to which you had no ties and had never been. Yet there is some evidence that this is precisely what’s happening, not only to refugees, but to millions of “migrants” and, even, potential “migrants.” Meanwhile, to pass through the gates of a refugee camp anywhere in the world is now to consign yourself to being labelled a “refugee” everywhere and forever, as increasingly the data collected by humanitarian organizations and the UN is shared, preserved and duplicated worldwide. This problem, its sweeping breath and depth, its rapid expansion with almost no pushback from anyone, makes a mockery of a debate over concerns over sharing the personal details of one person via Twitter.
Welcome to the global humanitarian surveillance state.