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Humanitarian Actions in Mediterranean digital societies

On 3 June 2022, the Jean Monnet Chair in Mediterranean Digital Societies and Law-Digital Mare Nostrum (DIGIMED) held its inaugural conference with a focus on data collection and human rights in humanitarian actions in the Mediterranean area.

After the opening address by the Rector of the Politecnico di Torino, Prof. Guido Saracco, the conference started with a round-table discussion moderated by Jeanne Mifsud Bonnici (University of Groningen and University of Malta). Lina Jasmontaite (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Pauline Veron (European Centre for Development, Policy Management) and Ayca Atabey (Information Technology Law Institute at Istanbul Bilgi University and Edinburgh University) focused on the collection of personal data in humanitarian actions, covering several aspects, including data protection, digitalisation, human rights, and gender issues.

Lina Jasmontaite emphasised the need to implement data protection in humanitarian emergencies, given the impact on individuals of new technologies used in this context. In discussing risks arising from the processing of personal data in humanitarian actions, she considered important digital tools, such as messaging apps and cash transfer programmes.

This focus on digital tools was further elaborated by Pauline Veron, noting the role they play in decision-making and stressing the need to better understand technological innovation and promote responsible digitalisation for human rights-oriented aid. Digitalisation is also crucial to facilitate the delivery of assistance (e.g. digital ID and biometrics), but special attention must be paid to partnerships with governments, free consent of people involved, and technical failures. As Pauline suggested, all these issues need to be considered avoiding the risk of ‘techno-optimism’ in the humanitarian sector.

Finally, Ayca Atabey shifted the discussion to gender implications, focusing on data collection on women in humanitarian actions and related risks. She stressed the need to address gender equality and analysed several cases where these issues are relevant by discussing concrete actions put into practice by humanitarian organisations.

In the second part of the morning section, the conference went on with another round-table discussion where Giuseppe Vaciago, (LT42 and Politecnico di Torino) and Alberto Pelliccione (ReaQta) focused on cybersecurity and human rights. In considering the threats associated with digital technologies, Giuseppe Vaciago discussed the ‘lawful hacking’ practice (also known as ‘government hacking’), where investigative authorities use tools to access computer systems and their content, providing some concrete case studies of these practices carried out by law enforcement agencies.

Giuseppe emphasised two opposing needs to be balanced: respecting individuals’ privacy and fundamental rights, and ensuring national security. He suggested the adoption of specific principles and rules to limit data processing activities to what is necessary for national security purposes and to adopt adequate security measures to limit security risks, such as data breaches and unauthorised access.

The technical aspects of these tools were then discussed by Alberto Pelliccione, who provided an interesting overview of how spyware tools work. Alberto noted that spyware, used by public authorities in investigations, has become more sophisticated than in the past, able to enter computer systems without being noticed by the owners and to collect a large amount of data. In discussing the capabilities of spyware, he also dealt with the risks relating to access to data by third parties other than public authorities.

The afternoon section of the Conference started with a keynote given by Joe Cannataci (University of Groningen and University of Malta), former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy and chairman of the DIGIMED Advisory Board.

Based on his extensive experience, including many EU-funded research projects, he provided valuable suggestions for further investigations on Mediterranean digital societies and emphasised the importance of an interdisciplinary approach, by combining training and theoretical analysis with fieldwork and policy-making, including stakeholder consultation and the development of guidelines and recommendations. Focusing on some case scenarios, Joe also discussed some examples of invasive uses of new technologies by public authorities, highlighting the importance of building a common framework to address these issues and protect human rights.

The keynote was followed by an expert panel discussion with Michelle Pace (Professor in Global Studies, Roskilde University), Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (Research Director & Senior Researcher at Peace Research Institute Oslo; Co-Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies) and Paolo Benanti (Pontifical Gregorian University). These three speakers offered different perspectives on the various issues that emerged during the conference, focusing on the social, legal and individual dimensions.

European migration and asylum policies over the years and their external dimension, involving non-EU countries, were discussed by Michelle Pace, who also emphasised opportunities and limitations of the approaches adopted to protect people on the move. Against this background, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert focused on three different aspects of humanitarian action shaped by digitalisation: border management and control, organisation and management of search and rescue activities, support for migrants in accessing communication services and seeking information. Finally, Paolo Benanti pointed out the need to consider the ethical implications arising from the use of AI and data-intensive technologies in the governance of migration flows to promote responsible policies centred on the human being.

The last session of the conference was a round-table discussion moderated by Massimo Marelli (International Committee of the Red Cross) where Belkis Wille (Senior Crisis & Conflict Researcher, Human Rights Watch), Catherine Lennman (Global Privacy Assembly), Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion (Privacy International) and Christina Zarogianni (University of Cyprus) focused on the use of new technologies in border control and associated risks, providing important suggestions to address them.

Belkis Wille shared her experience in dealing with human rights issues arising from intensive data processing by governments and international organisations, emphasising the need for better standards and policies. In discussing these issues, she examined some concrete case studies to illustrate the risks of prejudice for the people involved, in the absence of rules for data collection and management.

Catherine Lennman presented the perspective of the Global Privacy Assembly, which brings together local, national and international data protection and privacy authorities, discussing the main goals and activities of the GPA Working group on the role of personal data protection in international development aid, international humanitarian aid and crisis management (WG AID).

Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion focused her presentation on the work of Privacy International in addressing the impact of invasive technology on the rights of migrant and refugee populations. In considering the risks arising in this context, she discussed some case studies (e.g., outsourcing of border management and mobile extraction practices) that put people on the move under invasive surveillance and monitoring. Alexandrine therefore insisted on the need for an effective human rights-based approach in government policies and practices and to scrutinise them closely.

Finally, Christina Zarogianni – a young scholar who, together with Ayca Atabey, was selected on the basis of a call for abstracts – discussed certain applications used in refugee status determination procedures, mainly based on biometric identification, algorithmic profiling, and emotion detection technologies. She highlighted several risks of these AI applications, such as the risk of prejudice to data protection, freedom from discrimination, the right to liberty and security and the freedom of thought.

Maria Samantha Esposito, Assistant professor of Private Law | Politecnico di Torino