Questioning the use of biometric technology in humanitarian response

Anna Kondakhchyan Humanitarian, ICT4D, Protection, Refugees and IDPs

Anna Kondakhchyan shares the findings of new research, Biometrics in the Humanitarian Sector, which looks into the benefits and risks of using biometric technology to register people to receive humanitarian aid.

How would you feel if refusal to submit your biometric data meant you were excluded from the provision of humanitarian assistance?

Biometrics, the measurement of human characteristics through technology such as iris scanning, facial recognition and fingerprint scanning, can be a polarising topic. Fans of the technology praise its huge potential to combat fraud and streamline service delivery in low-resource settings, while others point to the significant risks to privacy resulting from collecting and storing this precious personal information.

Current use of biometrics in the aid sector

There are concerns that gathering this sensitive data could put refugees at risk, if the data got into the hands of their persecutors.
A recent illustration of how polarising the subject can be comes from the Rohingya crisis response in Bangladesh. Since August an estimated 688,000 Rohingya refugees have gathered in camps in a border area known as Cox’s Bazar. Humanitarian agencies, have been working with the Bangladeshi government to coordinate everything from food distribution to treating the wounded. To facilitate this immense and complex relief effort biometric identification systems are being used. Yet, there are concerns that gathering this sensitive data could put refugees at risk, if the data got into the hands of their persecutors.

As Oxfam, we purposely chose not to be an early adopter in this space with a self-imposed moratorium on the use of biometrics in 2015. Since then there have been a number of developments that have led us to consider the possibility of introducing secure, ethical and cost-effective use of biometric technology in our programmes in the future. So, in November we kicked off a research project to help inform our choice of whether to use or not to use biometrics. We teamed up with the Engine Room an international non-profit organisation that supports social change organisations to increase their impact by putting data and technology to strategic use.

After a few busy months, involving interviews with internal and external stakeholders from the international development sector, the biometric industry experts and practitioners, and debate among the Responsible Data community, the report on the findings is about to be published. It is released as the 2nd MERLTech conference takes place in London, where Oxfam will be running a session with others to examine the biometrics question from three angles: operational, responsible data and privacy, and culture.

The report starts by examining the external context around use of biometric technology in the sector, considers the benefits and potential harms, and then goes on to outline use cases where biometrics could be helpful, given Oxfam’s broad position.

What has changed in the last two years?

  • Biometric deployment in the development and humanitarian context is now widespread and expanded beyond the remit of UNHCR and WFP-led implementations to other actors
  • International donors put increased pressure to integrate biometrics into aid delivery to demonstrate the effectiveness of humanitarian interventions
  • Preference for distributing cash to people in emergencies, rather than distributing food and other essentials, continues to grow, which places even greater pressure on humanitarian actors to monitor and demonstrate traceability of distribution

The report argues that amid pushes for innovation, the humanitarian sector has been home to ‘experimental’ uses of technology for technologies’ sake. Biometrics fall in this category.

At the same time, external trends point to greater integration of biometrics with public services like voting, as is the case in at least 42 countries worldwide, or key services, like purchasing mobile phone sim cards. This, coupled with often nascent regulatory environments when it comes to data protection, is cause for concern in the sector and beyond.

Biometrics and fraud

When we set out to do this research, the most frequent justification we heard for why biometrics should be used in humanitarian aid delivery was that its use enhances accuracy and reduces fraud. While a good number of stakeholders interviewed by the Engine Room perceived fraud to be a real problem, they were unable to put the problem into figures. Furthermore, although investment in biometric systems has increased, the research found ‘there has been no effort on the part of key user-organisations to compare the cost of instituting biometrics systems with the cost of fraud to the organisations’.

The deterrent effect of biometrics

The report further examines in some detail both positive and negative impacts of using biometrics in humanitarian aid delivery. Crucially, it considers potential unintended exclusionary aspects of using biometric technology, in particular where acquiring samples can be more difficult for persons of darker skin colour or persons who carry out hard manual labour or have disabilities. Or persons, who for cultural or other reasons may be reluctant to submit to providing biometric samples.

We will be reviewing what this means for how we engage with biometrics going forward and, if we do, then how best to mitigate the risks, outlined in the report.

Are you weighing up the pros and cons of biometric usage? We’d love to hear from you, comment below.


Rosa Polaschek

Rosa is a New Zealand qualified lawyer with an interest in corporate accountability. She is currently working in Oxfam GB’s Private Sector Policy team on business and human rights developments.