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The brave new world of ‘Tech-plomacy’

Digital information technology holds tremendous potential for easing human suffering. But it also poses many risks. In countries impacted by conflict, for example, those risks can be a matter of life and death. Humanitarian ‘tech-plomat’ Philippe Stoll decodes plusses and minuses of the humanitarian tech revolution.

The word “tech-plomat” is a new one in the lexicon of humanitarian action. But it seems the merger of two important concepts — technology and diplomacy — is an idea whose time has come, according to Philippe Stoll, whose job title is a case in point: senior techplomacy delegate for the ICRC.

As the name implies, Stoll’s job is to serve as a diplomat of sorts to the rapidly advancing technology sector — from big tech companies, to start-ups, academia and research labs. The mission: to be sure tech companies understand the humanitarian consequences of any technology they deploy.

“Most of the technologies are developed in the global north, in places where there is a level of peace and stability,” he says. “So some of the issues that we see in conflict, the tensions that are created by new technologies, don’t necessarily appear to the people who are developing them. So we need to help translate that to the tech world.”

The main focus, says Stoll, is the impact the technology has on vulnerable populations.  “Let’s take the issue of geolocation,” he adds. “For me, geolocalization is a bit of an annoyance. I don’t like that a tech company knows if I prefer this grocery shop or that one. But if I were living in a country that is at war —  Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, etc. — it has a totally different meaning. And the consequences are totally different.”

And what might those consequences be for people fleeing or living under the constant threat of armed conflict or violence? “It’s tracking them, it’s arresting them, it’s killing them,” Stoll says, referring to the ways that armed groups, militaries or even criminal networks might use sensitive personal data collected for all kinds of purposes, from messaging, to phone calls, banking, shopping — even information gathered by humanitarian organizations.

These issues are particularly critical for humanitarian organizations that are increasingly turning to new technologies to improve their ability to assess and analyze needs, deliver services more efficiently.

“As Red Cross and Red Crescent staff of volunteers, we know that the people trust us, they believe that we will do the best to provide them with the service or with the assistance they need. But if, because of what they gave us, something happens to them, the trust will disappear very quickly. So the consequences could be quite high.”

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