Data Protection in Humanitarian Action

Data Protection in Humanitarian Action

The Brussels Privacy Hub (BPH) as an academic research centre with a global focus, working on data protection and privacy issues, wishes to use its high-quality academic work to have a world-wide impact and give back to the international community. To further this goal, the BPH joined the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to produce the Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action (Handbook) in 2014.

The first edition of the Handbook, which was published in 2017, offers guidelines to organisations providing humanitarian assistance on how to protect personal data of affected individuals and of their own personnel. By providing much needed guidance on data protection while focusing on the core humanitarian principles, in particular the principles of ‘do no harm’ and human dignity, the Handbook filled a knowledge gap in the humanitarian sector.

The work of international and non-governmental organisations in humanitarian emergencies such as armed conflicts and other situations of violence, forced displacement, large migration flows, natural disasters and epidemics is essential for the protection of life, integrity, and dignity of vulnerable persons. Conducting such work frequently requires the collection and processing of a great deal of personal data, which is often highly sensitive. With this in mind, the Handbook explores the data protection concerns that humanitarian organisations face in their work, especially when deploying innovative technology.

2nd Working Series

Due to constant changes in the technologies that are coming together to form humanitarian programs, there is a need to update the first edition of the Handbook by adding new chapters on different technologies that have been receiving increasing attention. With this goal in mind, the BHP and the ICRC launched the 2nd working series, which brings together different stakeholders to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the most pressing issues in data protection currently affecting the humanitarian sector. The advisory board and working group for the second edition has been expanded to include more representatives of humanitarian organisations, data protection authorities, academics, NGOs, and experts on relevant topics.

On 3 June 2020, the Hub together with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published the second edition of their Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action. The co-editors of the second edition are Christopher Kuner, co-director of the Hub, and Massimo Marelli of ICRC. The second edition builds on the first edition published in 2017, and includes additional chapters on data protection and the following technologies: digital identity; social media; blockchain; connectivity as aid; and artificial intelligence and machine learning.

For the release of the second edition of the Data Protection Handbook for Humanitarian Action, the ICRC has convened a panel of experts to discuss how, in today's technological landscape, data protection is a more essential concern than ever. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact societies worldwide, contact tracing apps are being developed in a bid to contain the spread of the virus. While arguably effective in this sense, such technologies also pose important questions regarding the relationship between public health, data protection and privacy.

More information about the event available here.


The 2020 edition of the Handbook will provide more practical examples to the topics addressed in the first edition: data analytics and big data; drones/UAVs and remote sensing; biometrics; cash transfer programmes; cloud services; and mobile messaging apps. It will also include new chapters on blockchain, digital identity, artificial intelligence and machine learning, connectivity as aid and social media. These topics will be  the focus of  a  number of workshops:

  • 26-27 February 2019, Geneva: Workshops on Blockchain and Digital Identity Use Cases in the Humanitarian Sector
  • 2-3 April 2019, Brussels: Workshop on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Use Cases in the Humanitarian Sector
  • 3-4 June 2019, Geneva: Workshops on Connectivity as Aid and Social Media Use Cases in the Humanitarian Sector

Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action

  The Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action addresses questions that  arise in applying data protection to international humanitarian action, and is addressed to staff of international humanitarian organisations and NGOs who are involved in the processing of personal data, particularly those in charge of advising on and applying data protection standards. It is hoped that it may also prove useful to other parties, such as data protection authorities, private companies, and others involved in international humanitarian action.


Handbook Dissemination

Since its publication, the Handbook has been presented at the following events:

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