Information technology transfer is increasingly a crucial element of development and humanitarian aid initiatives. Social protection programmes are incorporating digitized Management Information Systems and electronic transfers, registration and electoral systems are deploying biometric technologies, the proliferation of mobile phones is facilitating access to increased amounts of data, and technologies are being transferred to support security and rule of law efforts. Many of these programmes and technologies involve the surveillance of individuals, groups, and entire populations. The collection and use of personal information in these development and aid initiatives is without precedent, and subject to few legal safeguards. In this report we show that as development and humanitarian donors and agencies rush to adopt new technologies that facilitate surveillance, they may be creating and supporting systems that pose serious threats to individuals’ human rights, particularly their right to privacy.The authors comment that
The deployment of surveillance technologies by development actors, foreign aid donors and humanitarian organisations is conducted in the complete absence of any public debate or deliberation. The development discourse rarely considers public opinion of the target populations when approving aid programmes. Even the availability of countervailing perspectives is surprisingly low. Seminal strategy documents like the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs’ Humanitarianism in a Networked Age or the UN High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda’s A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transfer Economies through Sustainable Development, pay scant attention to the potential impact of the adoption of new technologies or data analysis techniques on individuals’ privacy.
In sum, there are four major problems arising from the increased use of development aid to advance surveillance in developing countries. First, technologies are being deployed that raise significant concerns with regards to privacy and other human rights. Second, such technologies may not necessarily be appropriate for achieving development goals or may have undesirable side effects. Third, these technologies are already seen as legally and technologically problematic in more developed countries. Fourth, these technologies are deployed in the absence of relevant and adequate legal frameworks, in contravention to international human rights and national constitutional requirements. Too often these are the missing dynamics in modern development discourse around the deployment of technological solutions.They conclude -
The recent landmark UN report, Humanitarian in a Networked Age, recommended that organisations should protect individuals through the adoption of “Do No Harm” standards for the ethical use of new forms of data, including protocols for protecting privacy, and develop frameworks to hold practitioners responsible for adherence to ethical and technical standards.
It is the contention of this paper that a far more active approach is needed to ensure that the adoption of new technologies in development and humanitarian initiatives do not imperil, but rather promote, the human rights of those they purport to benefit.
The cases and examples presented in this report show that technologies are indeed a key component of modern development and humanitarian policies and programmes, and will continue to inform development policy as technologies improve and enable development actors to not only be more effective but also to monitor and assess their own effectiveness. With increased pressures on aid agencies to improve their monitoring and evaluations and to ensure the efficient disbursement of aid funds, there will be ever increasing pressure to collect data and replace expensive human resources with cheaper technological solutions. Yet it is also clear from this review that increasingly the technologies and techniques adopted by bilateral donors and international funding agencies are often supporting surveillance and undermining individual liberties. They are achieving development at the cost of human rights, particularly the right to privacy and protection of personal information.
The technologies identified in this report not only facilitate surveillance far beyond that which would be acceptable and lawful in more developed countries, but they do so in contexts in which adequate legal safeguards are all but absent. Introducing technologies to solve complex social problems in resource-poor environments without strong democratic institutions is thus an exercise fraught with new types of risks.
It is essential that the development and humanitarian community has informed and realistic debates about whether a technological system should be developed, and deployed in a particular context. This debate is not about anti-technology. Technologies undoubtedly have the potential to dramatically improve the provision of development and humanitarian aid and to empower populations. The expectations that are placed on technologies to solve problems, however, need to be significantly circumscribed, and the potential negative implications of technologies considered. Biometric identification systems, for example, may assist in aid disbursement, but if they also wrongly exclude whole categories of people, then the objectives of the original development intervention have not been achieved. Border surveillance and communications surveillance systems may help a government improve national security, but are equally likely to enable the surveillance of human rights defenders, political, immigrants, and other groups.
Beyond an ethical debate about whether surveillance technologies should or should not be employed, there are extensive legal debates about the compatibility of such technologies programmes with national, regional and international human rights instruments.
Privacy is of course recognized at both the international and regional levels as a fundamental human right. The right to privacy is enshrined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 12), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art. 17); the International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (art. 14); and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 16). At regional level privacy is protected by the African Charter on Rights of the Child (art. 10), the American Convention on Human Rights (art. 11), the Arab Charter on Human Rights (art.17). The recently adopted ASEAN Human Rights Declaration also explicitly applies the right to privacy to personal data (Art. 21). Many more countries have legislation providing for data protection: at last count there are at least 100 countries with data protection laws.
Importantly, the vast majority of developing countries also have explicit constitutional requirements to ensure that their policies and practices do not unnecessarily interfere with privacy. In fact, only five Medium and Low Human Development Index countries do not have explicit mentions of privacy in their constitutions (Cameroon, Comoros, India, Indonesia, and Samoa).
The benefits of development and humanitarian assistance can be delivered without surveillance. The choice between privacy and development creates a false dichotomy and spurs over-simplified arguments about the role of technology. The discussion reveals no nuance, no consideration of the values and priorities tied up in privacy and development, no reference to the potentials of technology or the changing nature of threats and security, and no indication of the other choices that exist. The challenge is to improve access to and understanding of technologies, ensure that policy makers and the laws they adopt respond to the challenges and potentialities of technology, and generate greater public debate to ensure that rights and freedoms are negotiated at a societal level. Technologies can be built to satisfy both objectives.
Even if privacy was deemed to be secondary to the building of effective, modern and secure States, and to the provision of basic aid, the moral question still arises: if the purpose of development is to empower those in developing countries to have access to the same rights and capabilities as those in the developed world, and if the transfer of knowledge and technology is essential to that, then why diminish those very same people by granting them lesser human rights protections? If privacy and the protection of personal information are essential as constitutional and human rights protections in developed societies, this must also be true in developing countries.