In my previous post, I touched briefly on some of the concerns surrounding the collection and use of biometric data on refugees.
If it needed to be stated more clearly after reading that post, I want to be sure to stress that I do see the value and importance of any country having a system for registering the entrance and exit of displaced peoples within their borders. I can also understand the urgency surrounding the EU's recent consultation on establishing an interoperability mechanism for the various member country databases. There are legitimate security concerns when it comes to tracking and managing the flow of non-citizens within a country.
Rather, to recap the emphasis I wanted to convey in that previous post, I think the prevailing concerns around the collection and storage of biometric data from refugees is the special vulnerability that these people face when it comes to any misuse of their data or exposure to what privacy experts refer to as "function creep"--in this case use of the data beyond the original intention of its collection.
So, for example, when an UNHCR field station within one country collects fingerprints, facial or iris scans, or DNA from a refugee for the purposes of managing their aid and asylum process, and that data then subsequently gets accessed by legal agencies from another country with intentions for pursuing extradition or demanding refoulement. That refugee would almost definitely have no legal citizenship rights to fall back upon in the courts or justice systems.
In my previous post, I also left off by saying that I wanted to make an effort in this next post to point readers to some good published literature examining the use of biometrics in the refugee situation and then suggest some ways that readers can begin to advocate on behalf of these most vulnerable.
Three great publications that I can recommend for getting up to speed with the use of biometrics in a humanitarian context are:
- "Application of biometrics as a means of refugee registration: focusing on UNHCR's strategy", by Anna Lodinová, published in Development, Environment and Foresight (2016), Vol. 2, No. 2, pages 91-100.
- "Experimentation in humanitarian locations: UNHCR and biometric registration of Afghan refugees", by Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, published in Security Dialogue (2015), Vol. 46, No. 2, pages 144-164. [Requires journal subscription].
- "Refugees and the Biometric Future: The Impact of Biometrics on Refugees and Asylum Seekers", by Achraf Farraj, published in Columbia Human Rights Law Review (2011), Vol. 42, No. 3, pages 891-941.
I have a lot of confidence that after you have spent some time with each of those articles you will feel a little better equipped with both a sense of the implications of the use of these technologies on those with no legal status, as well as an acute sense of urgency around the need for our respective governments to hear from each of us who do have some capacity to shape our respective national policies with respect to refugees.
I would also encourage readers to spend time with the references and bibliographies for each of these articles and take your interest and research deeper.
When it comes to taking action I can recommend at least two immediate steps that a reader can take. First of all, tap into the NGOs that are marshaling their resources towards defending refugees, asylum seekers, and the displaced. Join their campaigns. Donate.
But more specific to the issue of biometrics, I would urge readers to start following the work and actions of Privacy International. They are doing some incredible advocacy on behalf of refugees and protection for their data.
For example, as the EU is seeking to make country databases of refugee biometric data more interoperable and shareable with legal agencies across borders, Privacy International, in a recent comment for the related public consultation, drew attention to the EU's flagrant oversight and disregard for data protections in the proposal.
Sadly, it appears that governments are approaching the use of technologies in this milieu strictly as a means for greater security and control as opposed to balancing its use against civil rights and constitutional protections. Which underscores the need for all of us as citizens to make our voices of concern heard. We must work through NGOs and their political lobbies, as well as make contact with our immediate representatives and those from other constituencies serving on key committees that drive the formation of legislation and policy in these areas.
Here in the U.S. we have recently heard some incredibly bolstering statements from Senator Al Franken, Ranking Member on the Sub-Committee of the Judiciary on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, about the overreach of influence and control that big tech (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, etc.) has over both our individual data and the data that influences our society, politics, and culture. We should encourage our politicians in these statements (not disregarding their missteps or crimes - Franken is cooperating with an inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse).
Specifically, in the coming days, I will be voicing my deep concerns about the Trump administration's efforts to dismantle the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the agency within the State Department responsible for handling aid and diplomacy in the world's displacement zones.
Part of what I hope these blog posts can do, in small ways, is add to the echo of accountability and positive reform. So by all means, please feel free to share!