Mind the gap: Data security in aid work through ICT4D


Nowadays many aid workers are working with mobile apps and other digital services and devices to facilitate their communication efforts in crisis situations. But ICT4D and ICT technology are struggling with some security gaps. This allows external individuals and businesses to access or, in the worst case, even destroy the available information and data. So how is it possible to keep these devices safe?

One idea is the use of threat models, which make the digital work environment more secure in aid organizations. According to the report entitled “Digital security in aid and development”, which was published in 2015 by Rahel Dette, the threat model can be used by aid actors “to play through possible attacks and hacks ahead of time. Being more alert to digital vulnerabilities can help prevent data breaches and devastating damage, which is especially important in the aid sector” (Dette, 2015). This offers these people more safety in their jobs.

As discussed in my earlier blog post “Which dimension do mobile technology, apps and ICT4D have in humanitarian aid?“, smartphones lately have been more and more integrated into people’s everyday lives. Consequently, the problem of security gaps in information technology has been spreading. Communication tools contain risks, “especially concerning digital security and privacy”, explains Dette (2015). Society experiences lots of security leaks, not only in banks and businesses.

Leaks are everywhere and are difficult to investigate. In the aid sector, there are many security gaps with ICT as well. “In the wrong hands, maps with the exact location of vulnerable people, routes of aid trucks and records of a person’s health provide playbooks for harm” (Dette, 2015). What can happen if externals would be able to obtain the data of aid organizations? This kind of information primarily exists because it helps to plan and monitor the work of aid organizations. It is very important not to let these data get into the wrong hands, because it might also be used to “implement attacks that are entirely at odds with our intentions” (Dette, 2015).

Smartphones and other information technologies do not have the necessary protection systems to fend of all possible attacks. A secured back up solution is essential for concepts like cloud computing and MDM (Mobile Device Management). All these threats are sensitive in aid and ICT4D. During certain crisis situations, the possibility of fatal consequences might not be excluded. Many aid workers are exposed to big dangers in their jobs. However, crisis mapping and ICT technology open up a new possibility for them. They can make smart use of mobile technology and participate in networks to access data geographically from different locations in an emergency or crisis situation. Dette’s article (ibid.) provides information on how aid organizations may prevent a misuse of ICT4D projects by addressing the following steps:

  1. Assets: Where do you store sensitive and valuable information?
  2. Adversaries: Who might want to access and abuse this data?
  3. How could these adversaries, get steal or compromise the data?

Let’s recapitulate and ask: is digitalism needed or does it just have to do with all those digital trends within social media? The development researcher Jan Nederveen Pieterse argues that telephones, radios and television are a better option than expanding the information technologies. Or could it be better not to use technology at all? asks Dette. Even if Pieterse says that the digital divide is not a technical issue, but rather a socio-economical point, he prefers that it would be a preference to “disaggreate ICT4D” and to rethink ICT in development policy (Pieterse, 2010, p. 166). Personally, I think that some approvement in the ICT field has to come up. It is tricky to face the concequences within ICT4D and the risks of leaking data, as there are so many new changes on the growing market.

What do you think about the risks with ICTs in aid work and what is needed to establish a more secure system for mobile technology? I would appreciate to hear your thoughts about this. Next, I will try to address how aid workers or NGOs’ use mobile technology in their job in and (from) Europe. So, stay in touch and keep on reading. Thanks!

Dette, Rahel: “Digital security in aid and development”, published Nov. 18, 2015. (http://www.gppi.net/publications/data-technology-politics/article/digital-security-in-aid-and-development)
Nederveen Pieterse,  Jan (2010) Development Theory. Second Edition.


  1. Rudelene Nanette

    Thanks for this, Stella. I haven’t really thought about this. Probably because I mostly worked in a low tech environment. But it is changing. I remember when the organisation I worked with had to burn or shred old documents when we found out that some old documents from offices were ending up as wrappers for the fried banana sellers!

  2. Joshua Ndip Ako

    You have shown an understanding of how ICT4D can be conceptualised in development work by critically looking at the detrimental part of ICT4D. By pointing out the flaws that are embedded in ICT, it is evident that techno-deterministic point of view regarding ICT4D should be cautiously examined when considering the kind of ICT that can be applied in development projects, in developing countries. More importantly, the fact that these technologies are made in Western countries post a problem for end users in developing countries where there are no technical skills and expertise to diagnose serious problems with the technologies.

  3. Pingback: Messaging apps in humanitarian operations: researching their future potential – Creating Connections

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