‘It’s like the wild west’: Data security in frontline aid

A Q&A on how aid workers handle sensitive data by Irwin Loy: “The cyber-attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross, discovered in January, was the latest high-profile breach to connect the dots between humanitarian data risks and real-world harms. Personal information belonging to more than 515,000 people was exposed in what the ICRC said was a “highly sophisticated” hack using tools employed mainly by states or state-backed groups.

But there are countless other examples of how the reams of data collected from some of the world’s most vulnerable communities can be compromisedmisused, and mishandled.

“The biggest frontier in the humanitarian sector is the weaponisation of humanitarian data,” said Olivia Williams, a former aid worker who now specialises in information security at Apache iX, a UK-based defence consultancy.

She recently completed research – including surveys and interviews with more than 180 aid workers from 28 countries – examining how data is handled, and what agencies and frontline staff say they do to protect it.

Sensitive data is often collected on personal devices, sent over hotel WiFi, scrawled on scraps of paper then photographed and sent to headquarters via WhatsApp, or simply emailed and widely shared with partner organisations, aid workers told her.

The organisational security and privacy policies meant to guide how data is stored and protected? Impractical, irrelevant, and often ignored, Williams said.

Some frontline staff are taking information security into their own hands, devising their own systems of coding, filing, and securing data. One respondent kept paper files locked in their bedroom.

Aid workers from dozens of major UN agencies, NGOs, Red Cross organisations, and civil society groups took part in the survey.

Williams’ findings echo her own misgivings about data security in her previous deployments to crisis zones from northern Iraq to Nepal and the Philippines. Aid workers are increasingly alarmed about how data is handled, she said, while their employers are largely “oblivious” to what actually happens on the ground.

Williams spoke to The New Humanitarian about the unspoken power imbalance in data collection, why there’s so much data, and what aid workers can do to better protect it….(More)”.