March 12, 2020

The human-rights researcher Dragana Kaurin, a research fellow at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University and founder of the Localization Lab, recently visited SIPA to discuss threats to protection of refugees’ digital agency and rights.

The March 5 talk was entitled “Crossing Digital Borders: Data Protection Threats and the Migrant Surveillance Industry.”

Kaurin outlined broad-ranging concerns about refugees, who are typically compelled to disclose large amounts of personal data to varied actors including UN agencies, border control agents, NGOs, and law enforcement staff—even as they lack information about their rights and control over their personal data.

She highlighted how refugees are effectively obliged to share personal data and sensitive information in exchange for essential services, like the processing of their asylum applications, from government agencies and their implementing partners.

Despite heightened protections of personal data in the European Union, Kaurin said, refugees are particularly vulnerable with respect to protection of their digital agency and rights because “they can't rely on protection from law enforcement and legal mechanisms of either their origin or host countries.”

Underscoring the complexity of this problem, Dragan highlighted the growth of a digital surveillance industry, simultaneously noting how important their tools are both for refugees and for the organizations that advocate on their behalf.

Kaurin also highlighted the growing human-rights risks stemming from problematic cross-sector partner companies—among them including Thomson Reuters Clear, Cellebrite, and Palantir—that are contracted to process, accumulate, and aggregate data collected by governmental and multilateral agencies.

There are also, she added, “companies who are directly engaging in data exploitation and feeding data about migrants into state surveillance systems.”

Kaurin concluded on a cautionary note about excessive biometric data being collected and the enormous scope for abuse despite little conclusive evidence that biometric authentication is necessary and proportionate.

— Shalini Seetharam MPA ’20

Sponsors: Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy concentration; Digital and Cyber Group