Established in 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is an independent international humanitarian organisation headquartered in Geneva. The ICRC defends and promotes the respect of international humanitarian law (IHL) and is dedicated to protecting the lives and dignity of victims of war and to the provision of assistance. Along these lines, it co-operates with governments, the private sector, and other entities affected by international and internal armed conflict and violence.
Together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and 190 individual national societies, the ICRC makes up the so-called International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
Digitalisation is increasingly present in the context of armed conflict and violence: States use cyber operations and artificial intelligence (AI) as part of warfare and humans are affected by the consequences of such operations and other digital risks. To this end, humanitarian organisations also use digital tools to improve their operations. The ICRC addresses the implications of technology which are multifold and range from data protection for humanitarian actions to the application of IHL to cyber operations in armed conflict. It hosts expert and intergovernmental discussions and has developed a number of (digital) tools to help improve awareness and understanding of IHL and relevant standards.
The ICRC co-operates with other organisations on digital policy issues.
Digital policy issues
- Artificial intelligence
The ICRC has also explored the role of AI tools in armed conflict. In a document titled ‘Artificial intelligence and machine learning in armed conflict: A human-centred approach’ published in 2019, it argues that ‘any new technology of warfare must be used, and must be capable of being used, in compliance with existing rules of international humanitarian law.’ It also touches upon the use of AI and machine learning technologies capable of controlling physical military hardware. It argues that from a humanitarian perspective, autonomous weapon systems (AWS) are of particular concern given that humans may not be able to exert control over such weapons or the resulting use of force. While the ICRC recognises that not all weapon systems incorporate AI or machine learning, it emphasises that such software components could eventually give way to future AWS. It also emphasises the potential misuse of AI and machine learning in the development of cyber weapons and capabilities. The ICRC calls for a human control-based approach to the application of AI and machine learning in AWS.
The question of AI has been further explored in other reports such as its ‘Autonomy, artificial intelligence, robotics: Technical aspects of human control’.
- Cyberoperations during armed conflict
The use of cyber operations during armed conflicts is a reality in today’s armed conflicts and their use is likely to increase in future. Through expert discussions, participation in intergovernmental processes, and bilateral confidential dialogue, the ICRC is raising awareness of the potential human cost of cyber operations and the application of IHL to cyber operations during armed conflict. Its efforts on this matter data back to over two decades ago. Ever since, the ICRC holds the view that IHL limits cyber operations ‘during armed conflict just as it limits the use of any other weapon, means and methods of warfare in an armed conflict, whether new or old.’
Over the years, the ICRC has been actively involved in global policy discussions on cyber-related issues, including those held within the UN (various GGEs and the OEWG). The ICRC has also been an observer in the expert processes that developed the Tallinn Manuals. More recently, the ICRC has organised expert meetings and developed reports on ‘The Potential Human Cost of Cyber Operations’ and on ‘Avoiding Civilian Harm from Military Cyber Operations during Armed Conflicts’ (forthcoming). Its legal views on how IHL applies to cyber operations during armed conflict are found in a 2019 position paper that was sent to all UN member states in the context of the different UN-mandated processes on information and communication technology security. The ICRC’s Law and Policy blog maintains an ongoing blog series on the potential human cost of cyber operations, featuring tech expert, legal, and policy perspectives.
- Privacy and data protection
The ICRC plays an active role in regard to privacy and data protection in the context of humanitarian action. The ICRC has a data protection framework compliant with international data protection standards that aims to protect individuals from a humanitarian standpoint. The framework consists of ICRC Rules on Data Protection, which were revised in 2020 in response to the rapid development of digital technologies, while supervisory and control mechanisms are overseen by an independent data protection commission and a data protection officer.
Despite the wide range of data sources employed and dealt with by the ICRC, specific attention is dedicated to biometric data which is often used in forensics and the restoration of family links. In order to manage this highly sensitive information and to ensure the responsible deployment of new technologies (including new biometric identification techniques), the ICRC has adopted a Biometrics Policy, which sets out the roles and responsibilities of the ICRC and defines the legitimate bases and specified purposes for the processing of biometric data.
Data protection is also addressed by the ICRC Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action. The Handbook provides suggestions how existing data protection principles apply to humanitarian organisations and builds on existing regulations, working procedures, and practices. The second edition of the document specifically provides guidance on the technical aspects of data protection by design and by default and covers technological security measures. In addition, it also addresses through dedicated chapters the potential and risks of digital technology such as blockchain, AI, digital identity, and connectivity for data protection in humanitarian action. The ICRC recently hosted a digital launch event for the second edition of the handbook focusing on data protection and COVID-19.
The ICRC further explored the issue of data and privacy in a joint report that it published with Privacy International titled ‘The humanitarian metadata problem: ‘Doing no harm in the digital era.’ The report looks into how different types of metadata are derived from internal and external humanitarian exchanges (i.e. exchanges between humanitarian organisations and individuals affected by armed conflict and violence or communication within humanitarian organisations) through telecommunications and messaging, cash transfer programmes, and how social media can be accessed and misused for profiling of individuals, surveillance, repression, or commercial exploitation. In line with the humanitarian ‘do no harm’ principle, the report underscores that the humanitarian community has to consider that there is a risk that it can hinder the safety and the rights of persons needing protection when using digital technologies. The ICRC also hosted an event on this topic, the Digital Risk Symposium, which was hosted in London in December 2018. The event explored what organisations can do to ensure they do not create additional vulnerabilities for people already at risk, as well as the potential for collaboration in the sector.
More recently, the ICRC has been involved in the Road to Bern via Geneva dialogues ahead of the 2020 World Data Forum. As part of its contribution, the ICRC collaborated with the World Intellectual Property Organization in the second dialogue dedicated to data collection entitled ‘Protecting data against vulnerabilities: Questions of trust security and privacy of data’. Specific attention was paid to three challenges: data anonymisation, loss of data through cloud processing, and limited use of biometric data.
The ICRC has argued in favour of digitalisation of the Geneva Conventions and on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of these very treaties and additional protocols, released an IHL digital app. The app provides access to over 75 treaties including the Geneva Conventions, and allows users to read through the content and therefore familiarise themselves with the text. The ICRC has a number of databases on IHL including its customary IHL database and the ICRC national implementation database.
Online learning is also used by the ICRC to promote the implementation of IHL. In 2019, it launched an e-learning course entitled ‘Introduction to International Humanitarian Law’ that is aimed at non-legal practitioners, policymakers, and other professionals who are interested in the basics of IHL. Other online courses are available through the ICRC training centre as well as e-briefings which are available on its e-briefing library.
The ICRC also maintains a digital library and an app with all ICRC publications in English and French.