On May 28, 2018, Dr. Sara Vannini of the Universtiy of Washington (Seattle/ USA) gave a talk on “Information practices of humanitarian organizations serving the undocumented: towards a conceptualization of Digital Sanctuary practices” at Università della Svizzera italiana. 

Many humanitarian organizations in the United States deal with information of undocumented individuals to help them secure the services that might otherwise be unattainable to them. ICTs can help organizations make this work more efficient. Nonetheless, they can also significantly exacerbate the risks that undocumented individuals face, exposing them to security breakages, leaks, hacks, and inadvertent disclosure, courts requests, etc.

To date, the efforts that organizations are doing to protect vulnerable individuals’ information have not been extensively studied. This presentation will introduce a preliminary study conducted on the US West Coast and aimed to understand how – in the age of big data – humanitarian organizations deal with vulnerable people’s data protection. The outcomes from interviews with staff at seven different organizations, including four advocacy groups and three organizations with ties to higher education, as well as from the organizations’ working documents analysis will be presented. Gaps between current legal standards, technology best practices, and the day-to-day functioning of these organizations will be highlighted. The necessity to support humanitarian organizations in further developing standards and training on digital privacy, as well as the need for scholars and institutions to engage with conceptualizations and practices of sanctuary in the digital world will be discussed.