FAQ

1. What is the Signal Code?

The Signal Code is the result of a six month study by the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to identify what human rights people have to information during disasters. The Signal Code identifies five rights from multiple sources of international human rights and humanitarian law and standards that already exist and apply to humanitarian information activities (HIAs). 

These five rights are the following: 1. The Right to Information; 2. The Right to Protection; 3. The Right to Privacy and Security; 4. The Right to Data Agency; and 5. The Right to Rectification and Redress. The goal of the Signal Code is to provide a foundation for the future development of ethical obligations for humanitarian actors and minimum technical standards for the safe, ethical, and responsible conduct of HIAs before, during, and after disasters strike.

2. Why is the Signal Code needed and why does it matter? Don’t existing humanitarian and human rights standards cover this?

Humanitarian action has always been an information driven enterprise. However, the widespread adoption of information communication technologies (ICTs) and increasing use of digital data by affected populations, humanitarian actors, governments, and private sector entities creates new ethical and operational challenges during disasters. Traditional humanitarian and human rights standards do not specifically address the complex issues related to the impact that current uses of information are having. In many cases, these standards are based on international legal instruments written nearly seventy years ago in the aftermath of World War II. 

The Signal Code is needed to begin “reboot” of humanitarian doctrine for the information age and translate internationally recognized human rights and fundamental humanitarian principles into the present historical and operational reality. Agreeing what human rights people have to information during disasters, as well as what protections they should be afforded against violations of those rights and potential harms, is the necessary first step to the development of ethical obligations and minimum technical standards.

3. Why use a rights-based approach?

The 1994 Great Lakes Crisis, a complex disaster resulting from the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide, caused the humanitarian community to adopt a series of reforms that led to the Humanitarian Charter and the Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, known as “Sphere”. The rights-based approach of the Sphere Standards, which has been incorporated into the current Core Humanitarian Standard, builds on the core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, independence, and neutrality. These principles inherently make humanitarian action a rights-based profession.

The Signal Code addresses the gaps in the current rights-based approach specific to information, data, and ICTs in the context of humanitarian crises. By creating a rights-based approach tailored to the unique issues raised by information during disaster, the Signal Code translates existing rights to make them specifically applicable to the new operational realities now faced by affected populations and humanitarian actors alike. 

The Signal Program contends that professional ethics cannot be developed without the identification of relevant rights. Relatedly, the Signal Program also believes that the eventual creation and agreement of minimum technical standards for the use of information during disasters – similar to existing minimum technical standards for other forms of response such as food aid and shelter – depends on consensus about what rights people have related to information. Thus, a rights-based approach, in the view of the Signal Program, is a prerequisite for humanitarian actors to be able to use information in a safe, responsible, and professional manner that respects the fundamental human rights of all people.

4. Is this enforceable?

No, the Signal Code is not itself enforceable. It is a product of scholarly research by experts in humanitarian response, ICTs, human rights, and data privacy and ethics. It is not a binding legal instrument, nor is it, at present, an accepted part of humanitarian doctrine. However, several of the rights articulated by the Signal Code are enshrined in certain instruments of customary international law and treaty. The goal of the Signal Code is to provide those developing ethical frameworks and future iterations of international law and regulations, which may, in some cases, be enforceable, a resource for identifying and articulating human rights that are applicable to humanitarian uses of data, ICTs, and information.

5. What does this mean for me and how will my work be impacted?

The implication of the Signal Code is that there is now greater clarity about how human rights relate to current and future humanitarian uses of information. Regardless of whether you or your organization embraces a rights-based approach, the Signal Code aims to help advance current and future efforts to create shared ethical obligations for practitioners. Most importantly, the primary goal of the code is to help reduce and prevent the threat of harm to vulnerable populations negatively affected by humanitarian information activities that may violate their rights. 

To that end, the Code should be seen as a resource for organizations engaged in both high level standard setting, day-to-day operational planning and execution, and retrospective monitoring and evaluation. The Signal Program encourages active and detailed feedback from all readers of the Code to inform later editions, improve its relevance to practitioners and researchers, and shape future products related to standards and ethics from the Signal Program.

6. Why now? 

Humanitarian actors and crisis affected populations have both integrated advances in communications technology into how they respond and react to crises. These technological advances have altered the nature of humanitarian action and have fundamentally changed the nature of crises in the 21st century. Increasingly, affected populations are identifying access to the type and speed of information enabled by technology as critical to meeting their needs and aiding in their survival. Information itself is becoming increasingly synonymous with aid.

However, evidence is also emerging that HIAs, as used by humanitarians, particularly those employing experimental applications of digital data and ICTs, may in some cases cause harm to vulnerable populations and violate their basic human rights. In some circumstances, those undertaking HIAs may be at risk as well. 

Examples of these risks and harms include the use of call detail records to attempt to contact trace the spread of Ebola and the use of satellite imagery to conduct human rights monitoring in Sudan. In the Ebola example, Sean Martin MacDonald presents evidence that this activity may have violated the domestic legal protections and human rights of people in ebola-affected countries in West Africa. In the Sudan example, Grant Gordon has published a quantitative analysis that indicates the monitoring of communities at risk of attack in Darfur through the analysis and publication of satellite imagery may have increased the rate of violence against these villages.

7. Who’s going to adopt this and how could it be adopted?

The Signal Program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative conducts academic research and education. It is not a regulatory or advocacy body. If an organization chooses to adopt the Signal Code, either in full or part, then that is that organization’s choice. Examples of past humanitarian standards that have been widely adopted by non-governmental and governmental organizations alike include the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards for Humanitarian Response, the Core Humanitarian Standard, and the Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct. Each of these standards is fundamentally rooted in a rights-based approach, and they are considered bedrock pillars of professional humanitarian doctrine.
8. Does the Signal Code invent new human rights? Where do the rights come from?

The rights identified in the Signal Code exist in international human rights law and humanitarian law, particularly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the Geneva Conventions. The rapid development of information technologies from the middle of the twentieth century onwards has fundamentally altered humanity’s relationship with technology, and subsequently challenged our understanding of agency, security, consent, and privacy. The Signal Code articulates existing rights in the context of these innovations and translates these rights into the environments of complex emergencies. 

9. Are the rights that the Code is based on always applicable?

IHRL and IHL are situationally applicable, with the former governing peace and the latter conflict. The scale of data, facilitated by modern information technology, is now such that state borders and discrete timescales are increasingly difficult to apply to data collection and processing. Data can be collected remotely, from populations which are unaware, and transmitted around the world in an instant. Once collected and transmitted, data live forever. Existing legal instruments and current interpretations do not always meet the challenges of the 21st century. 

The rights articulated in the Signal Code are interrelated and interdependent. This means that while distinct, each right is dependent on the recognition and realization of the other rights to be fully realized. The Signal Code draws on both derogable and non-derogable rights, and as such, while certain existing rights may be derogable, the rights articulated in the Code, including those which are non-derogable, cannot be realized without the fulfillment of all rights.

10. What’s next after the Signal Code? 

The Signal Code is intended to be the start of a conversation and a process leading to the creation of minimum ethical and technical standards based upon rights and obligations grounded in human rights and international law. The next step is to articulate the obligations corresponding to the rights discussed here. Once this is done, the process of creating minimal ethical and technical standards for the use of ICTs in humanitarian crises can begin.

This process cannot be undertaken alone. The Signal Program welcomes your comments and suggestions.


Translation | The Signal Code is currently available only in English, though the team is currently seeking resources to translate the Code into a wider range of languages. If you have translation skills or would like to provide resources to the team, please contact us! This urgent need will only grow as the Code and its follow-up components continue to develop.


Photo: Uganda Red Cross April 2016 FbF distribution

The Katakwi district branch of the Uganda Red Cross Society (URCS) carried out its second humanitarian distribution, for just over 2000 people, on 29 April 2016 in response to forecast flood-danger in the east of the country. They are part of the URCS forecast-based financing (FbF) programme in the country, supported by the German government and Red Cross with technical support from the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. The latest forecast, from the European Commission’s Global Flood Awareness System, backed up by the Uganda National Meteorological Authority, said water levels would cross a specified threshold of hazard in May – the ‘trigger’ established as part of FbF. Each of nearly 400 households in the villages of Akulonyo, Apedu, Omatai (pictured) and Oroboai received water-purification tablets, two jerrycans, five storage-sacks and two bars of soap. Picture shows Andrew Enyasu, 23, a stores volunteer with the Red Cross Action Team which he joined in 2011. He says that at a personal level, he has learned many skills like first aid basics. He is a student of information technology.

Credit: Denis Onyodi/URCS