Data protection in a fast-evolving world

Freija Poot
02 July 2018
Technology is evolving at astonishing speed. As a result, personal information is more accessible than ever, even in developing countries. As this technology facilitates intrusion into the private sphere of people, data protection is a particularly essential issue for humanitarian organisations.

Data protection is a must

The right to privacy has been a human right for a long time, but the protection of personal data is quite recent. More than 100 specific national and regional data protection laws and standards have been adopted in the past few years. Throughout the world, it is increasingly accepted that the protection of personal data is a fundamental right.

There is absolutely no reason to be more flexible when it comes to data protection in developing countries. On the contrary, the application of personal data protection standards must be a priority for any humanitarian organisation. They are mainly active in emergency situations, where data protection is more relevant than ever to ensure the safety, health and work of the people concerned.


Data collection

Humanitarian organisations may obtain personal information automatically, depending on the available technology and circumstances. They can, for example, collect health data for different purposes to provide life-saving and essential medical assistance. In doing so, organisations must be aware that every individual has a right to data protection.



The exceptional situations in which humanitarian organisations are active present specific challenges. What is the best way to manage sensitive information that puts individuals and even their families at risk? This may include data related to race or ethnic origin, religious or political orientations, armed involvement, or genetic and biometric data. Even an apparently simple list of names can be viewed as sensitive. For this reason, general regulation of all humanitarian organisations is not effective.

Another difficulty lies in the legislation on the protection of the data of deceased persons. In the absence of any uniform policy framework, humanitarian organisations have the habit to adopt their own policies in this area. For example, they apply the rules on personal data for natural persons to the deceased.

In this regard, also children constitute a particularly vulnerable category requiring special attention. The interests of children should, of course, be central in all decisions affecting them and their opinions are vital.


A solution?

With the increasing use of technology, humanitarian organisations are no longer the only ones processing personal data for crisis management purposes. Just consider the mobile operators and financial institutions involved in money transfer programmes. These digital technologies produce complex data flows that humanitarian organisations must take into account when they evaluate risks. For example, this may represent a danger for people working on the ground in armed conflict. That is why training is desperately needed.


Source: Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action (Christoph Kuner & Massimo Marelli). With special thanks to Lina Jasmontaite.

What is Belgium doing?


In 2016, the Belgian Development Cooperation adopted a “Digital for Development” strategy. One of the priorities was to make a better use of big data. Belgium wants to support the development of a culture of responsibility and transparency in such a way that humanitarian actors acknowledge their own responsibility to guarantee the protection of personal data in their work. When selecting humanitarian projects special attention is paid to ensure that the personal data of the beneficiaries are well respected. Moreover, in March 2018, Belgium hosted the Conference on data protection in humanitarian action. During this event the Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action – written by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Brussels Privacy Hub - has been launched.

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