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Published: December 17, 2014

Webinar – Communications Technology and Humanitarian Delivery: Challenges and Opportunities for Security Risk Management

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EISF (@EISF1) teamed up with DisasterReady.org (@DisasterReady) to host a webinar entitled ‘Communications Technology and Humanitarian Delivery: Challenges and Opportunities for Security Risk Management’. The webinar launches GISF’s new paper of the same title, and features engaging discussion on opportunities and challenges of communications technology in humanitarian delivery from Imogen Wall (the paper’s co-editor) and Rory Byrne (Founder and CEO of Security First).

Imogen Wall (@imogenwall) discusses affected communities and communications technology, social media in the developing world, hacking, disinformation, and data trails. Imogen explores the contextual impact of the use of communications technology. Humanitarian organisations lose sight of the fact that, whether we like it or not, ‘whole environments in which we operate are being changed by technology because of the uptake of technological tools by the affected communities’. An example of this is of a woman in the Philippines researching on her laptop upcoming typhoons for her own community.

Communications technology is transforming the way humanitarian organisations work, and aid agencies must remember ‘communication is as much about listening and understanding the perspective of your affected communities … as it is talking at them’. This ‘listening and understanding’ via communications technology and social media, rather than the mere harnessing of communications tools, is one means of maintaining aid worker access to vulnerable populations. An on the ground opportunity offered by communications tools includes ‘data trails’, which through local communities’ mobile phones in Haiti, population movement patterns were tracked to provide information on where cholera might move during the outbreak.

Imogen touches on opportunities of social media in the developing world. ‘Twitter is a many to many platform,’ and a pertinent example of positively using Twitter includes the government of the Philippines using specific hashtags for early warning systems and responses to natural disasters. However there are also risks, Imogen discusses the impact of humanitarian organisations operating in a ‘cyber warfare environment’. This means there is a ‘whole new range of ways we can be co-opted, hacked or taken over’ on social media. Relevant examples are fake human rights reports being published on a humanitarian organisation’s website by the Free Syrian Army, and directs threats from al-Shabaab being posted on Twitter. Another challenge of social media is the spread of disinformation and rumours. It causes a lot of people to dismiss the information on social media or disinformation can sway communities opinions into a silo of people ‘who only see one side of the conflict’.

Rory Byrne (@roryireland) discusses how many organisations that use communications technology and social media make mistakes by not integrating them in a secure manner. ‘Sophisticated security methods need to be built into any kind of planning’, as there have been increases of targeted security breaches aimed at organisations. Tools are needed for security, but people need to be trained because security breaches can be linked with human error.

Humanitarian organisations must implement practical security tools, either ones that offer a high level of security but are less useable, or tools such as Google, which are good but often less secure. Many communications technology tools are easy to implement, but colleagues on the ground must have the technical capacity to support them. Human weakness must also be addressed by the system in place. ‘IT security can be breached by small human mistakes’, and so capabilities must be built within the IT team ‘to understand complex security threats and how to counter them’.

It is important that we start to recognise that communications technology and IT security are a part of the overall organisations’ security and resiliency. For example, if phone networks are shut down during protests, does staff know how they might communicate effectively? Good information security practice is also important in relation to collecting and storing information. If organisations want to protect themselves against potential cyber attacks, targeted security breaches, or human error; agencies must ask the five W questions (who/what/where/why/when) as well as addressing:

  • who has access to the information in your organisation;
  • who, outside your organisation, wants access; and,
  • what are their capabilities?

Faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, organisations may wish or try to adopt a head in the sand approach. However, both Imogen and Rory stress that a one of the biggest risks related to communications technology, humanitarian delivery and security risk management is not engaging at all. Opting out of communications technology and social media, in present day, is not an option for humanitarian organisations.

Author: Jessica MacLean

In 2013, Jessica graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) with an undergraduate degree in Development Studies and Politics. Prior to joining GISF she spent six months working in Sierra Leone with men on the prevention of violence against women and the promotion of sexual reproductive health rights. During the summer of 2013 Jessica was a communications, legal and policy research intern at the Fahamu Refugee Programme, a refugee legal aid online platform in Oxford. Jessica joined GISF in November 2014 as a Research and Projects Assistant.


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