Selected Readings on Digital Self-Determination for Migrants

Image by Julie Ricard/Unsplash.

By Uma Kalkar, Marine Ragnet, and Stefaan Verhulst

Digital self-determination (DSD) is a multidisciplinary concept that extends self-determination to the digital sphere. Self-determination places humans (and their ability to make ‘moral’ decisions) at the center of decision-making actions. While self-determination is considered as a jus cogens rule (i.e. a global norm), the concept of digital self-determination came only to light in the early 2010s as a result of the increasing digitization of most aspects of society.

While digitalization has opened up new opportunities for self-expression and communication for individuals across the globe, its reach and benefits have not been evenly distributed. For instance, migrants and refugees are particularly vulnerable to the deepening inequalities and power structures brought on by increased digitization, and the subsequent datafication. Further, non-traditional data, such as social media and telecom data, have brought great potential to improve our understanding of the migration experience and patterns of mobility that can provide more targeted migration policies and services yet it also has brought new concerns related to the lack of agency to determine how the data is being used and who determines the migration narrative.

These selected readings look at DSD in light of the growing ubiquity of technology applications and specifically focus on their impacts on migrants. They were produced to inform the first studio on DSD and migration co-hosted by the Big Data for Migration Alliance and the International Digital Self Determination Network. The readings are listed in alphabetical order.

These readings serve as a primer to offer base perspectives on DSD and its manifestations, as well as provide a better understanding of how migration data is managed today to advance or hinder life for those on the move. Please alert us of any other publication we should include moving forward.

Berens, Jos, Nataniel Raymond, Gideon Shimshon, Stefaan Verhulst, and Lucy Bernholz. “The Humanitarian Data Ecosystem: the Case for Collective Responsibility.” Stanford Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, 2017.

  • The authors explore the challenges to, and potential solutions for, the responsible use of digital data in the context of international humanitarian action. Data governance is related to DSD because it oversees how the information extracted from an individual — understood by DSD as an extension of oneself in the digital sphere — is handled.
  • They argue that in the digital age, the basic service provision activities of NGOs and aid organizations have become data collection processes. However, the ecosystem of actors is “uncoordinated” creating inefficiencies and vulnerabilities in the humanitarian space.
  • The paper presents a new framework for responsible data use in the humanitarian domain. The authors advocate for data users to follow three steps:
  1. “[L]ook beyond the role they take up in the ‘data-lifecycle’ and consider previous and following steps and roles;
  2. Develop sound data responsibility strategies not only to prevent harm to their own operations but also to other organizations in the ‘data-lifecycle;’ and,
  3. Collaborate with and learn from other organizations, both in the humanitarian field and beyond, to establish broadly supported guidelines and standards for humanitarian data use.”

Currion, Paul. “The Refugee Identity.Caribou Digital (via Medium), March 13, 2018.

  • Developed as part of a DFID-funded initiative, this essay outlines the Data Requirements for Service Delivery within Refugee Camps project that investigated current data standards and design of refugee identity systems.
  • Currion finds that since “the digitisation of aid has already begun…aid agencies must therefore pay more attention to the way in which identity systems affect the lives and livelihoods of the forcibly displaced, both positively and negatively.” He argues that an interoperable digital identity for refugees is essential to access financial, social, and material resources while on the move but also to tap into IoT services.
  • However, many refugees are wary of digital tracking and data collection services that could further marginalize them as they search for safety. At present, there are no sector-level data standards around refugee identity data collection, combination, and centralization. How can regulators balance data protection with government and NGO requirements to serve refugees in the ways they want to uphold their DSD?
  • Currion argues that a Responsible Data approach, as opposed to a process defined by a Data Minimization principle, provides “useful guidelines” but notes that data responsibility “still needs to be translated into organizational policy, then into institutional processes, and finally into operational practice. He further adds that “the digitization of aid, if approached from a position that empowers the individual as much as the institution, offers a chance to give refugees back their voices.”

Decker, Rianne, Paul Koot, S. Ilker Birbil, Mark van Embden Andres. “Co-designing algorithms for governance: Ensuring responsible and accountable algorithmic management of refugee camp supplies” Big Data and Society, April 2022.

  • While recent literature has looked at the negative impacts of big data and algorithms in public governance, claiming they may reinforce existing biases and defy scrutiny by public officials, this paper argues that designing algorithms with relevant government and society stakeholders might be a way to make them more accountable and transparent.
  • It presents a case study of the development of an algorithmic tool to estimate the populations of refugee camps to manage the delivery of emergency supplies. The algorithms included in this tool were co-designed with relevant stakeholders.
  • This may provide a way to uphold DSD by contributing to the “accountability of the algorithm by making the estimations transparent and explicable to its users.”
  • The authors found that the co-design process enabled better accuracy and responsibility and fostered collaboration between partners, creating a suitable purpose for the tool and making the algorithm understandable to its users. This enabled algorithmic accountability.
  • The authors note, however, that the beneficiaries of the tools were not included in the design process, limiting the legitimacy of the initiative.

European Migration Network. “The Use of Digitalisation and Artificial Intelligence in Migration Management.” EMN-OECD Inform Series, February 2022.

  • This paper explores the role of new digital technologies in the management of migration and asylum, focusing specifically on where digital technologies, such as online portals, blockchain, and AI-powered speech and facial recognition systems are being used across Europe to navigate the processes of obtaining visas, claiming asylum, gaining citizenship, and deploying border control management.
  • Further, it points to friction between GDPR and new technologies like blockchain — which by decision does not allow for the right to be forgotten — and potential workarounds, such as two-step pseudonymisation.
  • As well, it highlights steps taken to oversee and open up data protection processes for immigration. Austria, Belgium, and France have begun to conduct Data Protection Impact Assessments; France has a portal that allows one to request the right to be forgotten; Ireland informs online service users on how data can be shared or used with third-party agencies; and Spain outlines which personal data are used in immigration as per the Registry Public Treatment Activities.
  • Lastly, the paper points out next steps for policy development that upholds DSD, including universal access and digital literacy, trust in digital systems, willingness for government digital transformations, and bias and risk reduction.

Martin, Aaron, Gargi Sharma, Siddharth Peter de Souza, Linnet Taylor, Boudewijn van Eerd, Sean Martin McDonald, Massimo Marelli, Margie Cheesman, Stephan Scheel, and Huub Dijstelbloem. “Digitisation and Sovereignty in Humanitarian Space: Technologies, Territories and Tensions.” Geopolitics (2022): 1–36.

  • This paper explores how digitisation and datafication are reshaping sovereign authority, power, and control in humanitarian spaces.
  • Building on the notion that technology is political, Martin et al. discuss three cases where digital tools powered by partnerships between international organizations and NGOs and private firms such as Palantir and Facebook have raised concerns for data to be “repurposed” to undermine national sovereignty and distort humanitarian aims with for-profit motivations.
  • The authors draw attention to how cyber dependencies threaten international humanitarian organizations’ purported digital sovereignty. They touch on the tensions between national and digital sovereignty and self-governance.
  • The paper further argues that the rise of digital technologies in the governance of international mobility and migration policies “has all kinds of humanitarian and security consequences,” including (but not limited to) surveillance, privacy infringement, profiling, selection, inclusion/exclusion, and access barriers. Specifically, Scheel introduces the notion of function creep — the use of digital data beyond initially defined purposes — and emphasizes its common use in the context of migration as part “of the modus operandi of sovereign power.”

McAuliffe, Marie, Jenna Blower, and Ana Beduschi. “Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence in Migration and Mobility: Transnational Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Societies 11, no. 135 (2021): 1–13.

  • This paper critically examines the implications of intensifying digitalization and AI for migration and mobility systems in a post- COVID transnational context.
  • The authors first situate digitalization and AI in migration by analyzing its uptake throughout the Migration Cycle, i.e. to verify identities and visas, “enable “smart” border processing,” and understand travelers’ adherence to legal frameworks. It then evaluates the current challenges and opportunities to migrants and migration systems brought about by deepening digitalization due to COVID-19. For example, contact tracing, infection screening, and quarantining procedures generate increased data about an individual and are meant, by design, to track and trace people, which raises concerns about migrants’ safety, privacy, and autonomy.
  • This essay argues that recent changes show the need for further computational advances that incorporate human rights throughout the design and development stages, “to mitigate potential risks to migrants’ human rights.” AI is severely flawed when it comes to decision-making around minority groups because of biased training data and could further marginalize vulnerable populations and intrusive data collection for public health could erode the power of one’s universal right to privacy. Leaving migrants at the mercy of black-box AI systems fails to uphold their right to DSD because it forces them to relinquish their agency and power to an opaque system.

Ponzanesi, Sandra. “Migration and Mobility in a Digital Age: (Re)Mapping Connectivity and Belonging.” Television & New Media 20, no. 6 (2019): 547–557.

  • This article explores the role of new media technologies in rethinking the dynamics of migration and globalization by focusing on the role of migrant users as “connected” and active participants, as well as “screened” and subject to biometric datafication, visualization, and surveillance.
  • Elaborating on concepts such as “migration” and “mobility,” the article analyzes the paradoxes of intermittent connectivity and troubled belonging, which are seen as relational definitions that are always fluid, negotiable, and porous.
  • It states that a city’s digital infrastructures are “complex sociotechnical systems” that have a functional side related to access and connectivity and a performative side where people engage with technology. Digital access and action represent areas of individual and collective manifestations of DSD. For migrants, gaining digital access and skills and “enacting citizenship” are important for resettlement. Ponzanesi advocates for further research conducted both from the bottom-up that leans on migrant experiences with technology to resettle and remain in contact with their homeland and a top-down approach that looks at datafication, surveillance, digital/e-governance as a part of the larger technology application ecosystem to understand contemporary processes and problems of migration.

Remolina, Nydia, and Mark James Findlay. “The Paths to Digital Self-Determination — A Foundational Theoretical Framework.” SMU Centre for AI & Data Governance Research Paper №03 (2021): 1–34.

  • Remolina and Findlay stress that self-determination is the vehicle by which people “decide their own destiny in the international order.” Decision-making ability powers humans to be in control of their own lives and excited to pursue a set of actions. Collective action, or the ability to make decisions as a part of a group — be it based on ethnicity, nationality, shared viewpoints, etc. — further motivates oneself.
  • The authors discuss how the European Union and European Court of Human Rights’ “principle of subsidiarity” aligns with self-determination because it advocates for power to be placed at the lowest level possible to preserve bottom-up agency with a “reasonable level of efficiency.” In practice, the results of subsidiarity have been disappointing.
  • The paper provides examples of indigenous populations’ fight for self-determination, offline and online. Here, digital self-determination refers to the challenges indigenous peoples face in accessing growing government uses of technology for unlocking innovative solutions because of a lack of physical infrastructure due to structural and social inequities between settler and indigenous communities.
  • Understanding self-determination — and by extension, digital self-determination as a human right, the report investigates how autonomy, sovereignty, the legal definition of a ‘right,’ inclusion, agency, data governance, data ownership, data control, and data quality.
  • Lastly, the paper presents a foundational theoretical framework that goes beyond just protecting personal data and privacy. Understanding that DSD “cannot be detached from duties for responsible data use,” the authors present a collective and individual dimension to DSD. They extend the individual dimension of DSD to include both my data and data about me that can be used to influence a person’s actions through micro-targeting and nudge techniques. They update the collective dimension of DSD to include the views and influences of organizations, businesses, and communities online and call for a better way of visualizing the ‘social self’ and its control over data.

Ziebart, Astrid, and Jessica Bither. “AI, Digital Identities, Biometrics, Blockchain: A Primer on the Use of Technology in Migration Management.” Migration Strategy Group on International Cooperation and Development, June 2020.

  • Ziebart and Bither note the implications of increasingly sophisticated use of technology and data collection by governments with respect to their citizens. They note that migrants and refugees “often are exposed to particular vulnerabilities” during these processes and underscore the need to bring migrants into data gathering and use policy conversations.
  • The authors discuss the promise of technology — i.e., to predict migration through AI-powered analyses, employ technologies to reduce friction in the asylum-seeking processes, and the power of digital identities for those on the move. However, they stress the need to combine these tools with informational self-determination that allows migrants to own and control what data they share and how and where the data are used.
  • The migration and refugee policy space faces issues of “tech evangelism,” where technologies are being employed just because they exist, rather than because they serve an actual policy need or provide an answer to a particular policy question. This supply-driven policy implementation signals the need for more migrant voices to inform policymakers on what tools are actually useful for the migratory experience. In order to advance the digital agency of migrants, the paper offers recommendations for some of the ethical challenges these technologies might pose and ultimately advocates for greater participation of migrants and refugees in devising technology-driven policy instruments for migration issues.

On-the-go interesting resources

  • Empowering Digital Self-Determination, mediaX at Stanford University: This short video presents definitions of DSD, and digital personhood, identity, and privacy and an overview of their applications across ethics, law, and the private sector.
  • Digital Self-Determination — A Living Syllabus: This syllabus and assorted materials have been created and curated from the 2021 Research Sprint run by the Digital Asia Hub and Berkman Klein Center for Internet Society at Harvard University. It introduces learners to the fundamentals of DSD across a variety of industries to enrich understanding of its existing and potential applications.
  • Digital Self-Determination Wikipedia Page: This Wikipedia page was developed by the students who took part in the Berkman Klein Center research sprint on digital self-determination. It provides a comprehensive overview of DSD definitions and its key elements, which include human-centered design, robust privacy mandates and data governance, and control over data use to give data subjects the ability to choose how algorithms manipulate their data for autonomous decision-making.
  • Roger Dubach on Digital Self-Determination: This short video presents DSD in the public sector and the dangers of creating a ‘data-protected’ world, but rather on understanding how governments can efficiently use data and protect privacy. Note: this video is part of the Living Syllabus course materials (Digital Self-Determination/Module 1: Beginning Inquiries).

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Uma Kalkar

Uma Kalkar

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