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The increasing scale and complexity of humanitarian needs and operating environments has led to experimentation with new tools and approaches, business models and organisational roles. These innovations are occurring against the background of the localisation agenda, competition from the private sector, collapsing trust in institutions, and increased scrutiny of charities.

This paper highlights how technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, biometrics, and blockchain are increasing the capacity of the sector to improve humanitarian outcomes for people in crisis through new functionalities and services, greater insights into emerging vulnerabilities and risks, and enhanced organisational performance. Conversely, it then explores how these tools and systems are introducing a host of potential harms by exposing vulnerable people and communities to new forms of intrusion, insecurity, and inequality. This includes issues of data protection, cyber security, inherent biases in technological tools, and the reality of the digital divide and exclusion.

Humanitarian organisations must consider the type of data they are collecting, where and how long it will be stored, and who will have access to it—otherwise they risk exposing people to new forms of surveillance or misuse.

Lastly, the paper outlines an emerging critical research agenda and active policy debates about responsible, ethical and inclusive design, use and regulation of technology in humanitarian contexts.

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