Paper: Organisational accountability and the logic of biometrics

Paper details

Paper authors Quito Tsui
In panel on Ctrl Shift? Exploring the impacts of digital change on power and accountability in humanitarian aid
Paper presenter(s) will be presenting In-Person / Online


The uptake of biometric technologies in the humanitarian sector has brought with it an organisation-centred logic of accountability. This paper considers how biometrics systems are adopted in pursuit of a notion of accountability that prioritises the needs of humanitarian organisations above the communities they serve. Biometrics systems are accordingly claimed to stop fraud and enable de-duplication and traceability. These systems make beneficiaries accountable to organisations by placing the onus of proof on beneficiaries, requiring them to engage with biometrics systems that monitor community behaviour.

Crucially, there is little accountability in the reverse. Foibles of biometric systems can seriously harm beneficiaries – difficulties in capturing or checking biometric data and poor connectivity can inhibit access to essential services. Meanwhile, impacted communities are caught in the dragnet of large-scale biometric data collection, with risks such as data mismanagement and cyber attacks meaning vulnerable information could be accessed by hostile parties.

Biometric systems are not accountable to impacted communities, rather they assert the interests of humanitarian organisations. A sober reassessment of this logic of accountability is critical to charting a path towards responsible biometrics use: one that is responsive to impacted communities.