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Rethinking the use of biometric technology in the humanitarian sector

by Charlotte Colombeau, Research & Communications Executive (F4ID)

One in ten people worldwide are undernourished, and the need for immediate digital solutions has never been greater. Traditional humanitarian assistance programmes often suffer from convoluted sign-up processes that require ID checks, evidence impact, and prevent aid diversion. Fortunately, biometric technology has emerged as a promising solution to these challenges. However, while some see it as a pragmatic and progressive solution, others are more sceptical given the potential misuse of such sensitive personal information. But what if there was a way to prevent this misuse?

What is biometric technology?

Biometric technology refers to the measuring of human features using tools such as facial, palm, iris and fingerprint scanning.

Why are some humanitarians reluctant to embrace biometrics?

Humanitarian organisations can face a variety of barriers when adopting any new technology: tech illiteracy, hardware costs and loss of valuable time in transition and training phases. Some argue that the adoption of new technology is predominantly motivated by the ‘pressure to modernise and innovate in order to stay alive’. It is true that when integrating tech into somewhere as sensitive as the humanitarian sector, precautions must be taken to ensure the person’s best interest is truly at the centre of the decision-making and that they are protected fully.

How can biometrics be used securely and fairly?

First and foremost, organisations must put the individual’s needs first. Individuals receiving assistance through biometric verification must be in control of their own biometric data, have the freedom to remain anonymous without it jeopardising their eligibility to receive entitlement, and have alternative options to the biometric data they must provide (e.g. both face and palm).

“A person should be able to own and control all aspects of their identity – which information is shared, where it is held and – most crucially – when it is forgotten,” (Trevor Morgan, Comforte)

Fintech for International Development’s platform ‘L20’ uses biometric verification (not identification) to ensure that the biometrics of the person receiving assistance match the biometrics linked to their QR key. L20 does not capture or store any ID information, making sign up processes fast, secure and efficient as well as avoiding any risk of data leakage. In fact, the recipient of humanitarian assistance remains completely anonymous and only allows access to their biometric coordinates by presenting their unique QR key. Remaining anonymous also removes the need for individuals to have ID in order to receive assistance - documents 1 billion people do not have. Even if someone could gain access, it would be impossible to reverse engineer the biometric coordinates into an image or redeem the QR key value for themselves. The QR key is worthless unless in the hands of its owner.

Humanitarians must embrace technology

Despite humanitarian funding nearly doubling over the past decade, relief reaches less than half the people targeted and we are in the midst of a global food crisis . Technology implemented correctly placing the individual’s needs at the centre can help to shape the solution needed to make humanitarian assistance more efficient and effective whilst still providing organisations with enough information to successfully implement future programmes and encourage donors to invest more by demonstrating exactly where their funds are going.

L20 is person-centred whilst also removing current barriers faced by humanitarian agencies: no hardware is required, it is easy to integrate into current humanitarian programmes, it is simple to use, and it provides rich data around user consumption requirements without exposing their identity.

Biometric data as with all technology must be used sensitively. Its risks must be taken into account when used, and the technology must be adapted for complex environments and the diverse needs of the sector. Used correctly, its technology can change the way humanitarian assistance is delivered for the better, put recipients in charge of their own data, and allow them the freedom of anonymity whilst catering to the needs of humanitarian organisations.

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