Ebola: A Big Data Disaster: Privacy, Property, and the Law of Disaster Experimentation

December 06, 2016 by Sean Martin McDonald

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Digitizing disaster response invites the problems of digital systems into the most fragile and vulnerable environments in the world. Troublingly, it is often humanitarian organizations that lead the charge, underestimating the practical and legal implications of digitizing these systems, from data security to operational coordination to the fairness of algorithms. In addition to their own digital transformations, many humanitarian organizations actively encourage governments, charitable foundations, technology companies, and mobile networks to share data in ways that are illegal without user consent or the invocation of governmental emergency powers. The governance of emergency powers over digital systems remain poorly de ned and badly regulated, and lack the basic due process checks and balances that exist for nearly every other kind of government emergency authority. The humanitarian community knows that it does not have the technological, legal, or institutional checks necessary to fairly or fully realize the promise of digital systems. That knowledge, however, hasn’t prevented many of the world’s most important and trusted institutions from taking irresponsible, at best, and illegal, at worst, risks with some of the world’s most sensitive data.