The Tech World is Coming for the Data of Migrants and Refugees, but Are Aid Agencies Part of the Problem?

The World Food Program is running aid distribution for Syrian refugees on the blockchain. If you are a techno-geek, your reaction might be “great!” But if you’re a human rights lawyer, like me, your first question is likely to be “why?” Apparently, the blockchain can help avoid transaction fees because there is no middle man. But as we know, running a blockchain takes a lot of money, so it’s not clear the savings are real. Blockchain requires a large amount of energy and storage space to run, so without more information on exactly how much all this is costing, it’s not certain how much is really being saved. The fact that the private sector has yet to find a cost-effective, sustainable use for blockchain should give aid agencies pause.

But this raises a second, more important question. If using blockchain isn’t about saving money, is something more sinister going on?

People thought Facebook was free, but in actual fact, people using Facebook were paying far more than the equivalent of a $50 cash fee in valuable personal data they were handing over to the company. As we now know, this personal data was sold at an enormous mark up to all sorts of dubious actors.

So it’s well worth asking the question: is WFP is rolling out blockchain at a substantial, if invisible, cost to refugees, who are obligated to submit to iris scanners and the sharing of other intimate, personal, identifying information? WFP has relentlessly promoted this technology as “good for refugees” because it “saves time” and “promotes accountability.” It’s also creating a giant database of the irises of thousands of people, a database which appears to be partially under the control of a private company. How will this database be used?

In other blockchain news, UNHCR appears weirdly excited about creating a “digital identity,” perhaps on a blockchain, for all UNHCR registered refugees. UNHCR has enormous power over the lives of refugees, as in many parts of the world, it determines refugee status and hands out refugee ID cards. This power gives UNHCR a quasi-governmental function and it means that it is imperative to question any programs to alter the ways in which refugee cards are handed out or the ways in which refugee personal information is stored or used. For an organization that is filled with refugee lawyers who barely know how to use Excel, this sudden desire to create a giant database of refugees biometrics and personal information seems odd.

Given that blockchain doesn’t yet have a commercial application, the breathlessness of UNHCR public announcements on blockchain’s usefulness in particular seems even more odd, but maybe it’s less odd when you look at it from a public relations standpoint. Sure, blockchain has yet to prove useful in any way, unless you can call Bitcoin useful, but it sure sounds good. Blockchain, as we all know, is “decentralized,” which apparently allows individual people, say individual refugees, to maintain control of their own data. Blockchain takes some of the creepy out of a massive database of refugee eye scans, fingerprints, medical histories and persecution claims. But why create such a database in the first place? And does having it on a blockchain really protect refugee data?

All of this seems rather less odd when you see what’s been happening over at IOM, the International Organization for Migration, where biometrics is the word of the day. IOM has turned biometrics and border control into a global industry all its own. Under the soft patina of a light-blue UN halo, IOM has been quietly compiling a massive, global database of migrants to be shared with governments as part of a world-wide system of surveillance. If you’ve ever set food in a migrant camp, chances are, IOM has your fingerprints. And where ever you go in the future, IOM will be there, with a full record of every time you’ve tried to cross a border or been deported.

This sort of information is super useful to governments trying to sort out who is who among the flows of refugees and migrants coming into their countries. Now imagine if you could add to the data IOM is providing a complete run down of every time someone has claimed asylum in another country, complete with their entire refugee status determination history? Wouldn’t that make the process of identifying asylum-seekers much easier? Sure, the blockchain can assure refugees that their data hasn’t been altered, but isn’t the very fact that their data is being collected and shared in this centralized way, often without what any normal person would call their consent, a human rights problem of its own?



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