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Dutch Red Cross worker Meike Groen, working for the ICRC in Haiti, helps people use the satellite phone to reassure relatives that they are alive, via Flickr. © ICRC / Marko Kokic / ht-e-00459 / www.icrc.org

ICRC and InterAction: Consultation on “Protection in violent situations – standards for managing sensitive information”

Date and Location: 23 August 2012, Washington DC

Participants: Civilians in Conflict, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, ICRC, ICT4Peace Foundation, IMMAP, InterAction, International Rescue Committee, Sahana Foundation, Standby Task Force, Ushahidi, World Vision,

Contact at ICRC: Guilhelm Ravier, gravier@icric.org

ICT4Peace Foundation represented and this note penned by Simone Eymann.

Background

In August 2012, the ICT4Peace Foundation, together with a diverse group of human rights and humanitarian actors, was invited by the International Red Cross to comment on the revised draft of their "Professional standards for protection work" from 2009. The standards were developed to ensure that protection work by humanitarian and human rights actors meets commonly agreed minimum professional standards, a baseline to be respected by all.

Revised standards

New technologies, such as mobile phones, social media, google map and satellite imagery, combined with new methodologies, such as crowd-sourcing and crisis mapping, have changed the access to protection information for humanitarian and human rights actors on the ground and for the population affected by violence. Many actors already use new technologies to collect and publicize information about humanitarian crises, much of which could be considered sensitive protection information, even if the individual or team collecting it are not necessarily "protection actors".

In light of this developing practice, participants were asked to give specific advice on the scope and the language of the revised standards on the chapter "Managing sensitive protection information". While not per se a protection activity, data collection and management is an integral part of many protection activities. Despite the sensitive nature of these data, their management is often substandard, owing lack of knowledge, expertise and capacity. This chapter was primarily addressed to protection actors who conduct interviews with witnesses or victims on a regular basis, as well as those, which receive or use such information collected by others.

Discussions among the participants focused on risks and manipulation of crowd-sourced data, informed consent when collecting information remotely, challenges of data interpretation with remotely collected information, and public sharing of sensitive information.

Risk and Manipulation of crowd-sourced data

The participants agreed that more thought should be given to the objectives of crowd-sourcing of information, data analysis and curation and suggested adding a separate guideline on analysis which should also include curation rules. In order to analyze the vast amount of data and to recognize false data early, posts for senior analytics officers should be created. So far, only communications specialists and press officers are identified in the standards (guideline 33). Examining datasets by professional analysts over a period of time could help discover deception. In response to the question if humanitarian actors should work with, or take into account in their assessment and planning, information from sites that clearly favour one side in a conflict at the risk of presenting a partial picture of what is happening on the ground, the participants recommended that all protection data, even if it was suspected to have been manipulated, should be considered in order to understand the dynamics of information in an environment. However, it should be tagged properly. A paragraph should be added to guideline 34 on threat analysis. In addition, the security of data should be regularly reviewed. Throughout the chapter, it would be better to clearly separate first-hand and crowd-sourced information gathering. A new guideline on how to communicate with communities via new technologies should be added.

Informed consent

How should the standard of informed consent be understood when collecting information remotely and not in a face-to-face setting and what are the challenges if someone was to remove consent remotely? The standards should give more attention to the problematic of information gathering from under-aged or mentally disabled persons. Professional, ethical and legal limitations of confidentiality should be considered and mandatory reporting be disclosed. The power relation between the person who is giving information and the person, who is receiving it, should be reflected. On the ground, the notion of informed consent cannot always be integrated, and, therefore, the sources of information should be maximized. Creating incentives should be avoided: remote info gathering should not be coupled with services. One of the problems on the ground is that it is not always clear if the person who is giving information is speaking on behalf of a larger group (e.g. household).

Public sharing of sensitive information

How does the public sharing of sensitive information affect the risks faced by civilian populations and humanitarian operations? It should always be clear what the benefits of going public are. With ICTs, we should be more sensitive to risk because of the added context provided by triangulation. There should be a distinction between aggregation of information and information that can put people at risk. If information is publicly shared, it needs to be adjusted temporarily and spatially, which also avoids the issue of providing information to military. Regular risk assessments for the system needed a feedback mechanism. To minimize risks, some degree of uncertainty in the data has to be accepted. There should be an obligation to share information that, if withheld, can do harm (mine locations), and by sharing, can benefit. Before publishing sensitive information, actors should look at the context of the country.

Way Forward

The ICT4Peace Foundation sent in detailed comments about the substance of the revised standards and suggested re-structuring the chapters from "Information Collection", to "Data Analysis", to "Information-Sharing". Since the standards have so far only been used at the organizational level, the ICT4Peace Foundation stressed the need to make the standards more "user-friendly" for field personnel with an online tutorial and/or a shorter version of the standards. Currently, they are only used at the organizational level. The revised version should be published in April 2013. The ICRC informed the ICT4Peace Foundation in January 2013 that an e-Learning course on "Managing of sensitive protection information" was being developed for field staff.

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Simone Eymann currently works for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) as a Consultant on ICT for Development and Communications.

Previously, Simone has worked as a consultant in the area of ICT 4 Peace for the UN Department of Public Information (DPI) and the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA), for communications offices in the private sector and as a producer and assistant for internationally acclaimed photographers and documentary filmmakers. 

She holds a M.A. in mass communication and media research, political science and constitutional law from the University of Zurich.

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