The Urgent Need to Reimagine Data Consent
Lack of agency exposes people to threats
In June 2023, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced a grim milestone. The war in Ukraine, combined with upheaval in Afghanistan, Sudan, and other areas, had created a record 110 million forcibly displaced people globally. This situation, Filippo Grand, the head of UNHCR, announced, is "an indictment on the state of our world."
2023's upsurge in forced migration represents the intensification of an ongoing trend. Year after year, the world has witnessed unprecedented forcible movements of people. As policy makers struggle to respond to the unfolding human catastrophe, they have increasingly turned to the possibilities offered by technology, and data in particular. Civil society and humanitarian organizations are attuned to the reality that these streams of people generate massive amounts of data that can, for instance, help channel aid to the neediest, predict disease outbreaks, and much more.
Yet, as is so often the case with technology, the potential for good is accompanied by certain risks. While data may be collected through individual consent, much of the refugee-associated data is used without the relevant populations being able to determine how, for what purpose and for how long. The lack of agency on how their data is used means that migrant populations are susceptible to a variety of risks associated with group privacy, lack of autonomy, and personal security. These are exacerbated by the inherent power imbalances between migrants and those collecting the data, as well as by a frequent lack of data literacy among migrant populations.
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