Big Tech and Privacy in Humanitarian Aid: Access Now's Digital Challenge Insights

08.03.2024| Christian Kreutz
Report cover page
Report cover page

I was intrigued by the latest report from Access Now entitled "Mapping Humanitarian Tech: Exposing protection gaps in digital transformation programmes." Why? Because it delves into both the potential and challenges of using digital solutions, data, and new innovations to increase effectiveness in the development sector. The report sheds light on the complexity of implementing digital innovations for NGOs, the growing dominance of big tech companies as solution providers, and the lack of consideration for data protection among some actors.

According to the report, the humanitarian field is currently dominated by a small number of organizations primarily based in Europe or North America. These organizations hold most of the public's attention, control over data circulation, and a significant portion of available funding.

The author of the report, Giulio Coppi, and his team highlight two main developments in the use of digital technologies within the humanitarian sector:

More broadly, we believe that two converging processes are unfolding: the transformation of some humanitarian actors into tech services providers, and the transformation of tech companies into de facto humanitarian service providers.

1. The transformation of some humanitarian actors into tech services

It's not surprising that multi-purpose technology providers often struggle to meet the unique needs of the humanitarian sector. This raises interesting questions from various perspectives. On one hand, it presents an opportunity to explore alternative revenue streams in a challenging funding environment. On the other hand, it highlights the limitations of private sector companies in addressing the complex needs of humanitarian organizations, as mentioned in the report. The standard technical offerings of these companies may not fit the specific requirements of the humanitarian context, or may clash with their typical revenue models for digital solutions. Charging end users would not be possible for such services, and high licensing fees could push NGOs to try and develop their own solutions.

If anything, the hyped expectations from the past highlight the marginality of the humanitarian market within the priority list of the private sector, which confirms itself as a minor actor in the overall funding ecosystem.

What I find particularly noteworthy about this statement is that the humanitarian sector, within the larger digital development ecosystem, appears to be one of the most dynamic sectors with a diverse range of smaller yet highly innovative private players.

I compiled a list of chosen providers and projects that demonstrate the level of activity in the field. However, these smaller players often face challenges competing with major tech companies, exacerbated by complex tender processes that contribute to their current predicament.

Some interviewees shared the frustration of small tech and service companies that struggle to understand how NGOs run their procurement, and stressed that the current system only works for big international companies with very large staff counts and extremely deep pockets.

And so the second trend comes with little surprise.

2. The transformation of tech companies into de facto humanitarian service providers

This statement slightly goes against the previous one, which suggests that the private sector is not very interested in a field that does not bring significant business value. Access Now claims big tech providers like Microsoft (e.g. with its cloud technology Azure) "have consolidated, resulting in de facto control over humanitarian technologies and data by a worryingly limited number of companies."

One factor is that smaller, forward-thinking companies, especially those in the open source industry, may struggle to match the comprehensive package deals offered by giants like Microsoft. This can become problematic when it results in a monopolization of services by providers who also cater to law enforcement and military entities (e.g. Clearview AI and Palantir). With the rise of cloud technology and the increasing reliance on a few major players and their data centers, this issue becomes even more pressing.

In my opinion, there is still a lot of untapped potential for collaborative projects through open source software. One noteworthy example is the DIHS2 platform, originally designed as a health management information system but now used in various other sectors. Another notable effort is the Open Data Kit or ODK, which aims to establish standards for data collection and avoid redundant work. Such open source collaboration not only benefits organizations, but also fosters competition and innovation among vendors in the public sector. An additional example is the Matrix open protocol (LINK!!) for secure communication, which has been adopted by many public sector tools. The report mentions various projects that have utilized conventional methods of collaboration between organizations and the private sector. However, this has resulted in an unsustainable model and often results in redundant efforts.

I can't help but feel a sense of unease regarding the direction in which transformation trends seem to be heading. I am skeptical of the feasibility of having UN organizations act as technology providers, and even more concerning to see large tech companies taking over in this area too. This report is essential in tackling these pressing concerns.

Data protection challenges

The report documents in much detail how tech companies alike NGOs engaged in the humanitarian sector struggle to deal sufficiently with data protection.

In 2021, CartONG, a French humanitarian-to-humanitarian (HTH) support NGO, assessed most common data collection solutions49 and found out that some privacy, data protection, and GDPR compliance features such as flagging and limiting access to personal identifiable information (PII) were still largely unaddressed by most of these providers, and that none of the tools allow a user to pre-set an expiration date for the entire dataset

The need for extra care in handling sensitive data from vulnerable groups is becoming more apparent, but it raises the question of whether anonymization measures are enough.

Possibly the most recurrent comment we received during the mapping is the reassurance that all data transferred to or analyzed through third party systems and private platforms is anonymized or de-identified and thus safe.

The difficulty lies in the fact that in humanitarian work, there is often a large volume of personal information to manage, especially with the increasing use of digital identification and biometric authentication worldwide.

WFPʼs SCOPE,205 one of the largest data management systems in the humanitarian sector, by 2020 it hosted the personal identifiable data of more than 63 million vulnerable people (of which some 20 million actively managed through the system), and it is licensed to other NGOs defined as subgrantees or implementing partners. Another example is World Visionʼs LMMS, which has “registered over 10 million beneficiaries and has been deployed in over 30 countries globally, by over 20 different humanitarian agencies.”.

These companies and their technology providers bear a significant responsibility. However, the report highlights the absence of sufficient policies and procedures for effectively handling personal data.

Aid actors and tech companies are equally opaque regarding the origins, conditions, modalities, and policies supporting the tech systems deployed on vulnerable communities

While initiatives like Responsible Data have been addressing the issue for years by implementing protocols for privacy impact assessments and enhanced cyber security, the development of such systems has progressed at a much faster pace than considerations of how to govern it.

The lack of focus on data governance is also apparent in the government sector, and this can have severe consequences. Several hacking incidents in the humanitarian sector in recent years serve as examples of these tragic outcomes.

Report: Mapping Humanitarian Tech: Exposing protection gaps in digital transformation programmes

Selected providers from the report:

OktaProvides cloud software that helps companies manage and secure user authentication into
GeoPollProvides cellular survey services and sampling frames, controlled by Mobile
TrustStampAn artificial intelligence company focused on providing identity verification and trust
KoboToolboxA nonprofit organization offering an ODK-compatible system for humanitarian data
TwilioProvides cloud communications platforms for messaging, voice, and
Humanitarian OutcomesProvides data and analysis on humanitarian operations and
MagpiA platform that integrates SMS and IVR for data collection and
Clearview AIOffers facial recognition technology, controversially used by law enforcement and government
Africa's TalkingSpecializes in SMS and voice-based technologies in
SurveyCTOProvides scalable data collection tools for organizations
ONAProvides scalable data collection systems, compatible with
NafundiProvides software and services for mobile data collection
ThurayaProvides mobile satellite
Hala SystemsA tech company that developed Sentry, a warning system for airstrikes in Syria, utilizing IoT sensors and machine
UNICC (United Nations International Computing Centre)Provides ICT services to UN programmes and
ITC GlobalOffers satellite-based communications to remote and harsh
PalantirA controversial data analysis company known for its work with data analytics and big data that worked with Mercy Corps and
DimagiFounded by MIT and Harvard researchers, offers data collection services for development and humanitarian sectors, known for
CanonicalProvides open-source security support and services, partnered with UNICC to deliver a secure private cloud environment for the
CellebriteAn Israeli company known for data extraction, including support for UNITAD's investigations into crimes committed by Da'
ODK (Open Data Kit)An open-source suite of tools that helps organizations author, field, and manage mobile data collection

Selected projects from the report:

UshahidiA crowdsourcing platform for mapping incidents, enhancing crisis response through community-contributed
WFP's SCOPEA vast data management system hosting personal data of over 63 million
Child Growth MonitorDeveloped by Welthungerhilfe and Supported by Microsoft, developed the Child Growth Monitor app using machine learning to assess malnutrition in
LMMS by World VisionRegisters over 10 million beneficiaries across 30 countries for efficient aid
DHIS2An open-source, web-based health management data
ZeteoA Microsoft/UNITAD partnership for advanced evidence analysis using Azure Cognitive Services.-
mVAMA mobile phone survey system by the World Food Programme for food security data.-
SKAIAn AI system designed by WFP in collaboration with Google AI for automated satellite imagery
Data Entry and Exploration Platform (DEEP)Developed by Data Friendly Space, UN OCHA, and others, DEEP is an open-source tool for centralized data management and
Rights ViewDeveloped by Microsoft and OHCHR, an information dashboard for UN human rights staff.-
OptimusA supply chain optimization tool used by the WFP, developed in partnership with Palantir.-
Care Voice IDA GSMA-convened partnership between CARE International and Telesom, using voice verification for cash and voucher assistance in
UNHCR's PRIMES proGres v4Systems for registration and biometric enrollment, managing millions of individual registrations and biometric data.-