OPINION: War victims’ personal data is valuable; that’s why it must be protected

by Yves Daccord | https://twitter.com/ydaccordicrc | International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Friday, 13 December 2019 15:40 GMT

Displaced people receive aid kits distributed by the (ICRC) International Committee of the Red Cross in the war-torn Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen June 21, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Given the threat of data theft, we cannot continue working using our old ways: a safe humanitarian space is a necessity

Yves Daccord is director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

What if your doctor shared the diagnosis of your illness with the village mayor? What if it appeared in your tax claim or mortgage contract? Would you continue to make doctor appointments or would you – in the interest of privacy -- consult the internet and self-diagnose?

If you were a victim of war in search of separated family members, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent family asked you for your personal data, would you share it, believing they would keep it safe? Or would you fear the well-intentioned aid workers might give it to a corrupt regime?

For decades the Red Cross has assisted people fleeing combat. People have long trusted us with their personal data so we can reconnect them with family. We work on cross-matching identities, locations and biometrics, while also exchanging letters and organizing phone calls. Our use of personal data has grown alongside new technologies that can help us, for instance, to identify dead bodies.

But personal data today has become a highly valued commodity, so valuable it could threaten the humanitarian work the Red Cross has long carried out. That’s why we’ve asked States from around the world to pledge to safeguard this valuable personal information, so that people in need can trust the system that has served war victims so well.

This month, a Red Cross convention that happens every four years brought together more than 150 States to discuss key issues such as this. Yesterday a resolution was proposed to acknowledge and respect the exclusively humanitarian purposes for which the Red Cross Movement collects data when working to help separated families.

We’re pleased that states approved the resolution after positive but complex discussions. This represents an important step forward in the critical debate on the protection of the humanitarian space for personal data. We are sure that this marks an excellent departure point for future discussions on this critical issue.

The ways of misusing personal data gathered in conflict zones are infinite -- and infinitely harmful. Data could be used for commercial, criminal or military purposes, for example. Even worse, one side in the conflict demanding the use of our data could target a certain ethnic group we assist, for instance.

Personal data is our raw material. Without it we wouldn’t have been able to reconnect millions of family members torn apart by war and disasters over the years. We wouldn’t have been able to return the countless remains of civilians and soldiers to family members, sometimes decades after their deaths.

Just like doctors have shaped their relationship with patients on the Hippocratic oath, we have built our action on the principle of “do no harm.” If we fail and our actions expose people to risk, trust in the humanitarian sector would disintegrate.

Given the threat of data theft, we cannot continue working using our old ways: a safe humanitarian space is a necessity. If people start doubting that their data’s confidentiality is really protected by the Red Cross and Red Crescent, they will lose trust in our capacity to help them. This insecurity could push them into finding harmful alternatives. In times of war and emergencies, opportunistic “helpers” offer fake services to anxious families. In parallel, desperate families can expose their stories on social media, where they may be met with hate speech and calls for violence.

A reliable and principled humanitarian actor can help without fear of negative consequences.

We now have a unique opportunity to set a new standard of confidentiality in humanitarian action. At the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, we are calling on states to respect the exclusively humanitarian purposes of the data we gather to restore family links, and we ask them not to request it. With this new standard in place, we can continue to ensure that we humanitarians “do no digital harm.”