Are Aid Agencies Abetting ‘Surveillance Humanitarianism’?
UN and charity organizations are taking biometric data from refugees, prompting some critics to worry about how it could be misused
When a fingerprint scanner senses skin, it glows green. It’s not a natural green but a toxic-colored one; a shade associated with alien slime or dystopian futures. Yet to the United Nations, this green is the color of order amid chaos, a symbol of the organization’s efforts to catalog biometrics wherever it works.
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) has so far collected 8 million biometric records. In 2018, the WFP started using similar devices in Yemen, a country embroiled in a grinding proxy war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels. Against a backdrop of fighting and mass hunger, the WFP began by collecting fingerprints in Aden, an ancient port city and temporary capital of Yemen.
The agency has since amassed the fingerprints of 450,000 Yemenis living in areas controlled by the Saudi-backed government. In early August, a new deal was made with the Houthis that will enable the WFP to dramatically expand its biometric database with new permission to register the fingerprints of the 9 million Yemenis living under Houthi jurisdiction.
Critics argue the aid sector is charging blindly into new technology, pressured by donors to cut costs and be more innovative.
The WFP is not the only aid organization collecting vast amounts of biodata. The UN refugee agency UNHCR holds the fingerprint and iris records of 7.7 million people. The UN’s International Organization for Migration says its database holds almost 800,000 individuals’ biometrics, and U.S.-based NGO Mercy Corps is also experimenting with biometrics in communities and its shelters in Nigeria, with 38,000 people registered so far.
Advocates say biometrics are an essential proof of identity in countries where few people have identity documents, enabling humanitarian agencies to verify that the right person is receiving the right aid. “Aid misuse is a huge challenge of global development, and what the WFP is trying to do…