The Signal Code

The Signal Code: “Humanitarian action adheres to the core humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality, independence, and humanity, as well as respect for international humanitarian and human rights law. These foundational principles are enshrined within core humanitarian doctrine, particularly the Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct5 and the Humanitarian Charter.6 Together, these principles establish a duty of care for populations affected by the actions of humanitarian actors and impose adherence to a standard of reasonable care for those engaged in humanitarian action.

Engagement in HIAs, including the use of data and ICTs, must be consistent with these foundational principles and respect the human rights of crisis-affected people to be considered “humanitarian.” In addition to offering potential benefits to those affected by crisis, HIAs, including the use of ICTs, can cause harm to the safety, wellbeing, and the realization of the human rights of crisis-affected people. Absent a clear understanding of which rights apply to this context, the utilization of new technologies, and in particular experimental applications of these technologies, may be more likely to harm communities and violate the fundamental human rights of individuals.

The Signal Code is based on the application of the UDHR, the Nuremberg Code, the Geneva Convention, and other instruments of customary international law related to HIAs and the use of ICTs by crisis affected-populations and by humanitarians on their behalf. The fundamental human rights undergirding this Code are the rights to life, liberty, and security; the protection of privacy; freedom of expression; and the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits as expressed in Articles 3, 12, 19, and 27 of the UDHR.7

The Signal Code asserts that all people have fundamental rights to access, transmit, and benefit from information as a basic humanitarian need; to be protected from harms that may result from the provision of information during crisis; to have a reasonable expectation of privacy and data security; to have agency over how their data is collected and used; and to seek redress and rectification when data pertaining to them causes harm or is inaccurate.

These rights are found to apply specifically to the access, collection, generation, processing, use, treatment, and transmission of information, including data, during humanitarian crises. These rights are also found herein to be interrelated and interdependent. To realize any of these rights individually requires realization of all of these rights in concert.

These rights are found to apply to all phases of the data lifecycle—before, during, and after the collection, processing, transmission, storage, or release of data. These rights are also found to be elastic, meaning that they apply to new technologies and scenarios that have not yet been identified or encountered by current practice and theory.

Data is, formally, a collection of symbols which function as a representation of information or knowledge. The term raw data is often used with two different meanings, the first being uncleaned data, that is, data that has been collected in an uncontrolled environment, and unprocessed data, which is collected data that has not been processed in such a way as to make it suitable for decision making. Colloquially, and in the humanitarian context, data is usually thought of solely in the machine readable or digital sense. For the purposes of the Signal Code, we use the term data to encompass information both in its analog and digital representations. Where it is necessary to address data solely in its digital representation, we refer to it as digital data.

No right herein may be used to abridge any other right. Nothing in this code may be interpreted as giving any state, group, or person the right to engage in any activity or perform any act that destroys the rights described herein.

The five human rights that exist specific to information and HIAs during humanitarian crises are the following:

The Right to Information
The Right to Protection
The Right to Data Security and Privacy
The Right to Data Agency
The Right to Redress and Rectification…(More)”