Our new review on the use of biometric technologies in the humanitarian sector

Paola Verhaert

Updated May 2018.

In 2015, Oxfam started a self-imposed moratorium on the use of biometrics in their work. Soon, that moratorium is coming to an end. For the last few months we have been working with them on a research project to inform a responsible approach to the use of biometric technology in Oxfam’s programmatic work.

Today, we’re excited to share a brief new report which outlines the ways biometrics are being used in the humanitarian sector, and reviews the context in which Oxfam is deciding whether (and how) to integrate biometrics into its programmes. The report includes a brief introduction to biometrics, a review of the context, and a short consideration of the benefits and potential harms that could arise from the use of biometrics in the sector. We excluded Oxfam-specific recommendations from this public report, as they relate to Oxfam’s internal structure and ways of working.

We built this report on extensive desk research and interviews. We spoke with internal stakeholders at Oxfam, external stakeholders at humanitarian agencies who are already engaging with biometrics, and with biometric tech providers. We also held a community call about biometric technologies to solicit opinions from the responsible data community, many of whom have already been thinking and working on related topics. Our research has benefited from hearing a wide range of experiences and opinions on the use of biometrics in the development sector, and we’re thankful to everyone who contributed.

As a sector, there is little publicly-available evidence on how biometrics are affecting humanitarian work and no agreed-upon standard for using biometrics. This is one of the many reasons why, with the publication of this report, we’re excited to contribute to the existing body of literature on the use of biometric systems in the development sector. We’re all still at an early stage of understanding the long-term impact biometrics will have in the sector, but would like to encourage those working with biometrics to reach out to us with comments and thoughts, and we look forward to continuing this discussion in the future.

Get in touch with us via research [at] theengineroom.org, or share your thoughts on twitter @engnroom.


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