This past weekend I took in a showing of Ai Weiwei's newest documentary Human Flow.
For someone like myself who does not subscribe to cable news and who has consequently followed the refugee crisis in drips and drabs through mostly static online news articles and social media, Human Flow was my first comprehensive window into this global nightmare.
Ai Weiwei did a remarkable job of capturing both the scale and the humanity of the displacement, without descending too grossly into the sensationalism of the chaos and conflict that permeates each of the unique situations unfolding across the global map--Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Kenya, Myanmar, etc., etc., etc..
It is a moving and meditative documentary and I highly recommend folks give it a viewing.
Going into the film I actually came armed with a bit of specific curiosity. Given Ai Weiwei's previous digital activism, I wondered if he might touch on the increased usage of biometrics and tracking databases for in-country and cross border refugee processing. There were minor clips here and there but it certainly was not the focus of the documentary. Which is all fine and good, but for for what it is worth, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), and of course the host country governments in which they are allowed to operate, work both separately and together to gather biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans, and even DNA) on refugees upon their arrival, entry and ongoing transfer.
On the whole, the collection of this highly personal information is in the interests of the refugees themselves, as it becomes the primary mechanism for them to receive aid and in some cases for them to successfully navigate the country systems toward settlement, re-settlement and perhaps even new citizenship. In Jordan, for example, Syrian refugees can have their irises scanned at ATMs and banks to receive cash assistance.
The digital dilemma at the center of this use of data is the fact that neither the UNHCR nor the host countries have issued any public policy directives regarding the longer term security and ethical use of this highly personal information. All publicly stated assurances, internal contracts and service agreements aside, there are "seemingly" no stated limits or boundaries on how this data can or should be shared--for example with in-country law enforcement, the military, security services or even with their counterparts in other countries with whom they may be partnering. This raises all sorts of questions around fair protections for the millions of stateless children, women and men being subjected to these systems.
In her article "Tracking Refugees With Biometrics: More Questions than Answers," Sarah Soliman, a former Special Forces contract support specialist in Afghanistan tasked with leading the first Identity Operations team to deploy biometrics in that arena of combat framed the lingering questions this way:
The technologies and database infrastructures underpinning these systems are also wholly corporate and proprietary. For example, UNHCR has been contracting for several years now with Microsoft and a slew of smaller technology startups to establish their programs, which they plan to roll out to all of their in-field operations in 2018. Which means this data is likely to ultimately be under the stewardship of private interests with either lots of legal muscle to restrict it to their ends and wishes (absent a secret or unofficial federal warrant) or is subject to the whims of their technical caprices.
Though the obstacles are formidable, for those of us with citizenship status in both developed and developing countries we at least have a modicum of legal and political standing to fight for more protections and ethical use of our personal data. But refugees only have the voice that those of us concerned about their welfare and advocating on their behalf can lend them in these times. So, I think it behooves those of us concerned about data protections, as a matter of principle, to begin paying close attention to how the issues surrounding biometrics are also touching the lives of these most vulnerable. We can and should fold this issue into our agendas.
In my next post, I'm going to do my best to summarize some of the scholarly criticism surrounding the dangers and use of biometrics in the refugee crisis and make an attempt to formulate some concrete action steps that activists and other interested parties can take to hold UNHCR, host countries, and even corporations accountable to the long-term data protections that the displaced deserve. Stay tuned!