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Perpetuating data colonialism through digital humanitarian technologies by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

In recent years, humanitarian spaces have become technologized as aid agencies have turned to digital technologies to improve aid allocation. Wearables and other forms of digital humanitarian artifacts can foster improved surveillance of aid beneficiaries, their needs, and aid distribution, but raise serious ethical concerns. Through tracking devices, aid beneficiaries risk becoming the producers of commercial data extracted from emergency settings under the pretext of a reciprocal ‘gifting’ relationship between benefactor and beneficiary, writes Kristin Bergtora Sandvik.

Operating at the interface of bio and sensor technology, wearables such as activity trackers and smartwatches facilitate the measurement, selection, screening, legibility, calculability and visibility of data associated with human bodies. Tracking operates through and upon multiple layers: general biodata, such as height, weight, gender, age and race; bodily fluids, including blood, sweat, sperm and tears; and the capture of individual characteristics, including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice and face recognition. These are conceptualized as smart devices that can be placed on or inside human bodies for many purposes, including tracking and improving health, safety, and nutrition.

Wearables for tracking and protecting health, safety and nutrition offer interesting possibilities for the humanitarian aid sector due to their ability to monitor the needs and movements of aid beneficiaries that can improve the efficiency and timeliness of aid allocation. By tracking aid beneficiaries, aid agencies are able to deliver or monitor reproductive health services, strengthen security and accountability through more efficient registration of wearers, or ensure adequate nutrition to those who need it.

However, while the sociological literature on tracking devices focusing on individual self-tracing and consumer behaviour is large and growing, little critical scholarly attention has been paid to the use of tracking devices in the Global South, and none at all to their use in the humanitarian context. The deployment of wearables in emergencies entails deployment in contexts where there are deep, extra-democratic power differences between beneficiaries and structurally unaccountable humanitarian actors, donors and private sector actors—something that requires urgent attention.

Worryingly, increased surveillance of human bodies through human wearables and other digital humanitarian artifacts points to the commodification of the human body. While digital humanitarian goods such as human wearables are hailed by private sector actors and humanitarians as ‘game changers’, their use is not only leading to improved aid allocation. The game is changing in a different way: beneficiaries wearing tracking devices are becoming data producers.

The postcolonial past still shapes and limits what a wearable can be and do. The humanitarian sector has long used wristbands to control and care for beneficiaries. In the past, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has tried to avoid multiple registrations by using stamps, wristbands, photographs, fingerprints, or biometrics. The historical use of wristbands raises questions about potentially repressive aspects of contemporary humanitarian use of wearables. According to the UNHCR, wristbands identify each individual claiming to be a refugee, limit the recycling of the refugee population, serve as distribution ‘cards’, and give everyone better access to food and other assistance. At the same time, wristbands are also commonly used in extreme registration contexts, such as those involving enclosure systems—the herding of people into a confined space for registration. These types of uses indicate that complicated historical baggage calls into question the idea of humanitarian wearables as a uniquely benevolent technology.

Moreover, wearables are part of a process of miniaturization of the communicative architecture of aid:  As observed by Collier et al. (2017), the grand aid schemes of yesterday are today found as gadgets. Small technologies of government now permeate the field of international aid.  Wearables are part of a general trend in aid, whereby “tremendous intellectual and moral energy, as well as the financial and organizational resources, is being devoted to inventing and disseminating … micro-endeavors”. However, the literature on humanitarian goods has so far given little attention to how the incorporation of international aid into the global data economy, dominated by tech giants in the global East and the Global North, changes this equation. No attention has been paid so far to the ‘gift’ element of data production and its implications for how we think about the nature of aid.

Data extraction through aid: beneficiaries as data producers

In The Gift, Marel Mauss explores how reciprocal exchanges of objects between groups—gifting—build relationships between humans. The obligation is articulated as a moral contract to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. A significant body of literature has explored aid as ‘gift exchanges’, focusing on aid as a form of symbolic violence or a source of asymmetric power differences in which gifting is seemingly based on reciprocal, equal relationships, but in reality is not (here, here, here and here).

In the humanitarian aid sector, gifting, at least by donors and humanitarian actors, is presented as a one-directional activity premised on notions of charity and financial generosity. With the rise of wearables, this relationship is turned on its head if we recognize the central premise of the global data economy: that beneficiary data is the product, not the tracking device, and that human bodies become data-producing units—aid beneficiaries become data subjects.

The prevailing attitude among proponents of digital humanitarian technologies seem to be that this is neither an extractive relationship nor an inverted one: beneficiary data logically constitute a reciprocal gesture in return for humanitarian aid, ‘the original gift’. But data of commercial value produced through the bodies of aid beneficiaries is not a gift, and will likely not be seen as such. However, given the continuing failure to characterize data transfer properly, it is useful to hold on to the gift concept as an analytical device for developing critiques of digital humanitarian goods in the age of data colonialism. This entails considering what kind of gifts data represent, the relationships ‘data gifts’ emanate from and create, and the costs and types of revenue generated, how and for whom.

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “Wearables for something good: aid, dataveillance and the production of children’s digital bodies.” Information, Communication & Society (2020): 1-16. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369118X.2020.1753797
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “Digital Dead Body Management (DDBM): Time to Think it Through.” Journal of Human Rights Practice (2020). https://academic.oup.com/jhrp/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jhuman/huaa002/5822573
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “Making wearables in aid: Digital bodies, data and gifts.” Journal of Humanitarian Affairs 1.3 (2019): 33-41. https://www.manchesteropenhive.com/view/journals/jha/1/3/article-p33.xml

Kristin SandvikKristin Bergtora Sandvik, SJD Harvard Law School, is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo.  Sandvik teaches robot regulations, legal technology and AI, legal sociology and ethics. Her widely published socio-legal research focuses on criminalization, technology and the struggle for accountability in humanitarian action. Most recently, she has published on humanitarian wearables and digital dead body management.



Title Image Credit: World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr