Data rights are human rights: climate refugees and data privacy in the Anthropocene

Occasionally I like to write about other things besides just walking and eating in the mountains. This was originally written for a course in my master’s of business analytics program. Saving here for posterity.


A blockbuster 2020 New York Times report (Lustgarten, 2020) details how a Guatemalan farmer named Jorge A (last name redacted due to his undocumented status) abandoned his farm and family due to cycles of drought and flooding created by increasingly severe climate-change-fueled El Nino weather patterns. Years of poor harvests brought him to bankruptcy, his family to starvation, and his small hut mortgaged for seed that then also failed. Desperate, in 2019 he paid a coyote to smuggle him thousands of miles into the U.S. for a chance to earn enough money to send back to his family.

Halfway across the world, Tropical Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique on March 14, 2019 in what became that country’s worst natural disaster. 1.85 million people required assistance — 6% of the country’s population — and 146,000 people were displaced from their homes (U.N., 2019). And at the broadest scale, today 1% of the world’s landmass lies within a hot zone near the equator at the high end of suitability for human life. On a business-as-usual scenario, with no reduction in emissions, in only fifty years those areas could encompass nearly 20% of global land surface (Xu et al., 2020). The Sahara Desert’s climate, or even hotter, is coming for the 3.5 billion people that live in those areas (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Expansion of inhospitable hot zones. Areas of mean average temperature above 29°C (84°F) are currently limited to the small black zones in northern Africa. On a business-as-usual trajectory of carbon emissions, by 2070 these zones will encompass nearly 20% of global landmass (shaded dark red areas) (Xu et al., 2020).

Data rights are human rights

From the individual scale, to a country’s population, up to continental trends, through slowly building impacts and singularly catastrophic storms, climate change is expected to cause the largest wave of global migration ever recorded (Lustgarten, 2020). Barring major reductions in global carbon emissions, hundreds of millions of people over the next century will be forced to flee direct impacts — failing crops, rising sea levels, flooding, drought — as well as wars, fighting over natural resources, and other issues indirectly exacerbated by climate change. This migration will place untold stress on national and international systems that collect data on, track, and vet migrants for services as varied as immediate humanitarian aid, petitions for asylum, and immigration processes. Despite this pressure, these processes must be held accountable to treat climate refugees and their data with the same transparency, protection, and respect as any other human being. For climate refugees, data rights are human rights.

Adaptation and mitigation to climate change in the service of creating a more sustainable world must address social inequalities at the same time as environmental problems, in line with the triple bottom line paradigm of sustainability. Social inequalities exacerbate environmental issues through a host of channels, like how income inequality is correlated with biodiversity loss, or how gender inequality affects birthrates or public-good resource management (Nazrul Islam, 2015). If we are to build a more sustainable world, our efforts to provide humanitarian aid to climate migrants cannot contribute to the social inequalities that the people most vulnerable to climate change are subject to, fueling positive feedback loops of vulnerability and marginalization (Parthasarathy, 2018). For a host of political, economic, and security reasons, this will be extremely difficult in practice, but starting from this foundational view is imperative for a world that respects human rights. In practice, this manifests in two main ways: informed consent for data collected, and digital security once data has been collected.

Governments and humanitarian organizations collect a range of data on people who are displaced internally within a country or are migrating cross-nationally. This includes written and oral surveys, biometric data such as fingerprints and retinal scans, and digital data such social media accounts. Increasingly, futuristic tactics include collecting data via unmanned drones — like cell phone conversations of refugees approaching the southern U.S. border (Ghaffary, 2020), or facial scans collected by unmanned drones fed into artificial intelligence models that can inform or outright automate decisions on visa, asylum applications, or refugee resettlement (Department of Homeland Security, 2018).

This presents substantial risk for abuses by algorithms created with biased assumptions or lax continued oversight (O’Neil, 2016). Government agencies are under political and economic pressure to manage borders as securely as possible, with as little time and money as possible. Humanitarian organizations face similar pressure to deliver impact to the greatest number of people with the smallest cost.

Informed consent is a crucial piece of respecting human rights within this landscape of data collection. This refers to the idea that refugees should understand the processes they are subjected to and have the option to opt out if they wish. Ideally, aspects like how their data will be collected, used, stored, and what security measures are in place to protect the data are communicated to the refugee in a way they can understand. On one side of the issue advocates will either argue that informed consent cannot be integrated into som technologies or services — like unmanned drones collecting remote data on refugees approaching a border — or that the overwhelming demand for humanitarian aid makes the benefit of delivering aid to more people outweigh the cost of not meaningfully designing informed consent into services. Richard Black, head of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham, says “there is no in principle reason why refugees and displaced persons should be treated differently in matters of consent than any other human beings. Stressing ‘exceptionalism’ cannot be used to justify poor practice” (Cornish, 2018).

Climate refugees are more likely to be among the poorest and least-educated humans, fleeing climate effects they do not have the ability or resources to adapt to in place (Black, 2001). Their social and environmental vulnerability is compounded by cognitive vulnerability, as well: poverty quite literally causes people to make worse decisions (Mani et al., 2013). Informed consent helps address these vulnerabilities. 

Failing to design informed consent into refugee data collection contributes to the inequality this vulnerable group faces, as their data can be used in a variety of harmful ways against them. One example comes from a UK charity that collected data on homeless foreign nationals in order to identify and help with their needs. The UK government later gained access to this data and used it to prioritize deportations (Townsend, 2017). It’s unlikely that the refugees knew who ultimately would have access to their data, as the charity workers collecting the data did not even know.

Even the act of providing data can be harmful to vulnerable populations. A 2019 World Refugee Council report details how a young Syrian refugee was pressured into disclosing that he is gay during his interview for asylum (Kaurin, 2019). While his sexual orientation could impact the evaluation of his vulnerability and improve his chances of gaining asylum, in Syria homosexuality is taboo and the young man felt extremely uncomfortable sharing that information. How his data would be used and safeguarded was not explained to him, and he feared that if the information got into the wrong hands he could be socially marginalized or that his life itself would be in danger.

Data security

Whether informed consent is baked into data collection practices or not, there is also potential for rights abuses in how data is processed, how and to whom it is shared, how it is stored, and the security measures used to safeguard it at every step in the process. Along all of these steps, governments and humanitarian organizations face pressures to do their work as efficiently as possible. Political pressure contributed to haphazard data processing and storage for refugee families separated at the U.S. border under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, where families for hundreds of children cannot be located (Dickerson, 2020). Economic pressure pushes humanitarian organizations to rely on third-party firms to develop apps for humanitarian services. Without the time or in-house technical knowledge to properly vet this work, these digital services may have major security holes, such as a cash payments app used by a leading NGO that had a security flaw allowing access to all of its beneficiary records (Cornish, 2017). Examples abound, and there is no reason that the humanitarian sector is any more equipped to handle and safeguard data than the business sector, which has a dismal history of protecting information; data from more than three billion people were compromised in just the two largest security breaches of this century (Swinhoe, 2021).

The arguments for weighing the speed or efficiency of humanitarian or border-control efforts above human rights are nuanced and depend on specific situations. How a humanitarian organization approaches assisting victims of Tropical Cyclone Idai, where immediate and profound aid is needed, is likely much different than how it approaches development work in response to slowly building effects like crop failure or gender inequality exacerbated by climate change. At national borders, customs agencies respond to shifting political dictates (like the U.S. shift from the Trump to Biden administration), and are some of the clearest expressions of growing global trends towards authoritarian regimes, nationalism, and xenophobia.


Better practices regarding consent and data security won’t address any of these foundational aspects driving how climate refugees are treated. These nationalistic tendencies scapegoat refugees as a dangerous “other” that will take jobs and increase crime. Yet this framing, while convenient politically, mistakes symptom for cause. Rationalizing data rights abuses at the U.S. border as necessary to combat crime, for instance, misses the point that increasing numbers of climate refugees at the border are only a downstream symptom of climate change, and true investments to reduce this crime would be better spent on the core issues of climate mitigation and adaptation. When each degree Celsius of global warming is predicted to increase the global average homicide rate by 6% (Mares & Moffett, 2016), it’s clear that using crime to rationalize abusing climate refugees’ data rights is morally bankrupt.

In conclusion, unprecedented numbers of people are at risk of losing their livelihoods because of the myriad effects of climate change, from increasingly hot climates unsuitable to human life, to biodiversity loss and shrinking natural resources, to rising sea levels flooding coastal populations. Seeking escape from catastrophe or better opportunities, people will move internally in their countries and across nations. The scale and rate of these migrations will cause tremendous challenges for data management related to humanitarian aid, immigration, and border control, but building a more just society as well as a more sustainable one in response to climate change requires a foundation of respecting the data rights of climate refugees.


Black, R. (2001). Environmental refugees: myth or reality? UNHCR, 34, 1–19.

Cornish, L. (2017). New security concerns raised for RedRose digital payment systems. Devex.

Cornish, L. (2018). Is data consent in humanitarian contexts too much to ask? Devex.

Department of Homeland Security. (2018). CBP Has Not Ensured Safeguards for Data Collected Using Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Dickerson, C. (2020). Parents of 545 Children Separated at the Border Cannot Be Found. New York Times.

Ghaffary, S. (2020). The “smarter” wall: How drones, sensors, and AI are patrolling the border. Vox.

Kaurin, D. (2019). Data Protection and Digital Agency for Refugees. World Refugee Council Research Paper, 12, 1–21.

Lustgarten, A. (2020). The Great Climate Migration. New York Times.

Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function. Science, 342(6163), 976–981.

Mares, D. M., & Moffett, K. W. (2016). Climate change and interpersonal violence: a “global” estimate and regional inequities. Climatic Change, 135(2), 297–310.

Nazrul Islam, S. (2015). Inequality and environmental sustainability. DESA Working Papers, 145, 30.

O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. Crown.

Parthasarathy, D. (2018). Inequality, uncertainty, and vulnerability: Rethinking governance from a disaster justice perspective. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 1(3), 422–442.

Swinhoe, D. (2021). The 15 biggest data breaches of the 21st century. CSO.

Townsend, M. (2017). Home Office used charity data map to deport rough sleepers. The Guardian.

U.N. (2019). UNHCR Factsheet: Cyclone Idai. In United Nations (Vol. 241, Issue 3222).

Xu, C., Kohler, T. A., Lenton, T. M., Svenning, J. C., & Scheffer, M. (2020). Future of the human climate niche. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(21).

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