The Digital “We Meant Well”
How digital spaces, emerging technologies, and technologists both help and hinder refugees — a curated collection
In 2011, Peter Van Buren published the book “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” As a Foreign Service Officer, Van Buren spends 269 pages excoriating the US-led effort to provide to rebuild a society that the US knew almost nothing about. Chronicling the adventures of oblivious administrators, overburdened soldiers, and well-meaning do-gooders, Van Buren highlights an enormous problem that doesn’t just plague governments doling out aid in post-war environments, but also private organizations and international governmental organizations before, during, and after conflict has broken out. Some of the most vulnerable people inside these conflict zones are refugees, and private organizations, corporations, and non-profits have managed to harness the power of new and emerging technologies to assist refugees in escaping violence, the same shortfalls which have always hampered the effective allocation of aid and assistance in the past continue to loom large in the digital age. This curated collection is designed to look at the positive and negative roles that technology plays in the journey of refugees from violence to resettlement.
1. Digital threats to refugees prior to the outbreak of conflict or movement
Persecution comes in many forms, and while technology can facilitate the secure interaction of peoples across national borders, poorly designed apps can inadvertently facilitate government-sponsored persecution.
(See “Grindr” in 2014)
(or look here too)
Threats are not just limited to apps, however. In the era of “big data” and “data as a commodity”, the information collected by data brokers (i.e. the companies who collect and analyze huge amounts of peoples personal data and then sell it off) can be purchased by third parties or governments who may use that data for less-than-honorable means. Last autumn, the US military was revealed to have purchased bulk location data from data brokers, which included data from a popular “Muslim prayer app with over 98 million downloads” according to Vice News. (https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgqm5x/us-military-location-data-xmode-locate-x)
Privacy advocacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, alongside other partners like Amnesty International and Color of Change have called for data brokers to refuse to provide their services to organizations who can’t assure them that their data won’t be used to perpetuate human rights abuses. (https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/02/data-brokers-dont-let-your-data-be-used-human-rights-abuses)
Fortunately, tools and training does exist for citizens and human rights advocates alike to dodge government surveillance and equalize the digital playing field. As we’ll see later, these tools are more effective at helping provide agency to refugees because they aren’t narrowly tailored towards solving specific refugee problems, but instead are oriented towards equipping vulnerable peoples with broader tools that they can then apply to particular situations, when appropriate.
“Surveillance Self-Defense” (EFF)
“Security in a Box” (Front Line Defenders & Tactical Technology Collective)
“Digital Protection Resources” (Front Line Defenders)
2. Digital or technological threats to refugees in-transit
The movement of refugees from their home country towards a new location makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation by governments, criminals, and other groups. In these scenarios, refugees likely have nothing more on their persons than money, some identifying documents, and a phone. For a Syrian refugee fleeing Aleppo towards Europe, their survival is dependent on the kindness (or not) of strangers along their journey.
(Syrian Journey: Choose Your Own Escape Route, via BBC)
One of the most effective uses of emerging technologies in the provision of aid to refugees fleeing conflict is the implementation of blockchain at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Via a project called “Building Blocks” rolled out by the World Food Program uses bio-metrics (such as the scan of a person’s iris) combined with Ethereum blockchain to create a unique, secure digital identity for a person, which allows the WFP to effectively distribute aid to Syrian refugees.
Great idea, right?! Unfortunately while the use of bio-metrics and blockchain can create unique digital ID’s to facilitate access to aid, it can also “exacerbate existing biases, discrimination, or power imbalances” according to a study published in Data & Society. The collection of bio-metric data in active war zones can also erode trust between NGOs and local power-brokers over fears of intelligence collection, as in the case of the Houthis in Yemen. Similar to the issue with data brokers, how this data is stored can also facilitate persecution later on, as in the case of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Bio-metrics aren’t the only technology being adapted to improve living conditions in refugee camps (check out these studies on lighting, mapping, and broader integration of phones, online technologies, and health support), however it is one of the most controversial. Oxfam very publicly halted their use of bio-metrics in order to investigate the wider implications of the technology (here too). In collaboration with The Engine Room, a technology company which “helps activists, organisations, and other social change agents make the most of data and technology to increase their impact,” Oxfam released a report which outlined how to integrate “secure, ethical and cost-effective use of biometric technology in its programmes in the future.”
This highlights a broader movement recently towards protecting refugees information from exploitation:
- “Responsible Data Management”, Oxfam
- “Data Protection and Digital Agency for Refugees”, Centre for International Governance Innovation
- “The Humanitarian Metadata Problem — Doing No Harm in the Digital Era”, Privacy International
- “Unpacking ‘Informed Consent’”, The Engine Room
But what about before refugees make it safely to either a camp or some other UNHCR-managed site? How does technology help or harm refugees in this process? Regardless of where a refugee(s) is fleeing from, the threats (both physical and digital) are numerous. According to several sources, the most empowering piece of technology that can determine the life or death of a refugee is their cell phone. Advancements in communications technologies represent unprecedented access to information the likes of which the modern world has never seen. Not only does access improve the quality of life of refugees in refugee camps, it also increases their access to critical information while they’re fleeing violence. If the mere access to the internet can increase a refugees chances of survival, one wonders how many lives Elon Musk’s Starlink program could’ve saved with WiFi satellites pointed over the Mediterranean Sea.
There are, however, two large threats to refugees in-transit that technology presents.
- Increased “attack surface”, or in layman terms, criminals and governments now have more ways to access and exploit refugees
- Digital “do-gooders” who developed rigid apps, websites, or other technology designed to help refugees but end up hindering their welfare
Under the first category, social media and digital access can facilitate surveillance, like mentioned before, but it can also offer direct access between human traffickers and their “customers.” The focus of this section, however, is the second phenomenon. Much like their biological counterpart, digital “do-gooders” can cause significant damage to refugees if their efforts are haphazard, cheap (read about “Digital Litter”), or not informed by cultural contexts. One of the common venues for rapidly applying technology solutions to humanitarian problems are “hackathons” which are today’s manifestation of the 1985 Live Aid benefit concert.
Again, the solution seems to be to provide flexible tools to refugees and other vulnerable persons which increases their access to information, rather than design rigid solutions that are astonishingly narrow in application.
3. Threats to refugees during integration or resettlement
Technology presents both opportunities and threats to Syrian refugees when they finally reach the borders of the European Union, despite the EU’s almost literal moving of the goalposts. While the digital infrastructure available to refugees today better facilitates their movement and survival, the threats of intrusive surveillance don’t go away. Threats are prolific at border crossings. Anyone who has physical access to your cell phone can download its contents and usually find a contracted company capable of decrypting its data. And lets not forget previous conversations about bio-metric data. While studies show that refugees are less likely to engage in terrorism than other types of migrants, strategies adopted by governments tend to be extremely suspicious of refugees. In fact, government over-surveillance of refugees can push them towards away from legitimate means of seeking asylum, and closer to criminal enterprises which seek to exploit them.
4. But who is working to transform “Digital Do-Gooders” into more informed professionals?
I’m really happy you asked that. In addition to UN-led reports on Rethinking Refugees’s Digital Access, or UNHCR-adjacent reports drafted by Privacy International on technology-driven discrimination, broader collaborative efforts are popping up with the specific focus of managing technological solutions to human rights issues. Whether its RightsCon (which hosted a panel in 2019 on “Data Protection and Refugees”), or organizations like Techfugees, the World Refugee Council, or Oxfam, the deliberate effort to improve this field is growing.
Ultimately its the responsibility of tech companies to design solutions that are secure (and don’t facilitate human rights abuses), culturally-attuned, and flexible, which can help protect refugees when they’re fleeing violence. They can also use their bully pulpit too while they’re at it.