Exploring distributed ledger applications in OCHA’s Humanitarian Notification System for Deconfliction (HNS4D) active in Syria

April 2020 — Binish, Idleb governorate: 16 families, originally from Marret Al-Numan countryside south of Idleb, now live in a damaged school in the town of Binish. Credit: OCHA

Abstract

Hospitals and clinics have always been a target of airstrikes since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, costing the lives of 916 medical workers in 595 documented attacks. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) created and deployed the Humanitarian Notification System for Deconfliction (HNS4D) to address this exact problem. The location sharing scheme, however, has yet to garner enough trust on ground. Humanitarian workers fear that they will be intentionally targeted by belligerents if their location is shared with the OCHA and there are historical precedents that validate their caution. This exploratory research provides an overview of blockchain technology, including concepts in archival science to illustrate the utility of distributed and decentralized networks in deconfliction. Blockchain-based systems can immutably record and synchronize consensually shared data across multiple nodes and cryptographically chain each transaction as a means for validation. Because of this, there are significant merits in using blockchain protocols in sharing and verifying real-time locations of humanitarian assets with multiple warring parties. The underlying metadata is only revealed when necessary, which keeps workers and medical sites are safe. The findings of this research evaluate the suitability of blockchain in HNS4D, and is tailored to stakeholders looking to adopt a location sharing scheme prioritizing privacy, efficiency, and detecting alterations in their deconfliction efforts.

Keywords: civil war, Syria, OCHA, location sharing scheme, blockchain technology

How to Cite: Park, D.C., 2022. Exploring distributed ledger applications in OCHA’s Humanitarian Notification System for Deconfliction (HNS4D) active in Syria. The Public Sphere: Journal of Public Policy, 10(1).

Introduction

Medical facilities have always been hit inadvertently and intentionally by every airpower across the participating belligerents of the Syrian civil war. The indiscriminate strikes against hospitals, clinics and civilian infrastructure alike have been sustained actively for a decade, becoming a defining characteristic of the war; and creating unprecedented levels of staff and patient casualties. The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded five hundred strikes on hospitals and clinics across Syria between 2016 and 2019 (WHO, 2020). Syrian and Russian forces have been notably observed to be deploying such tactics intentionally. In response, aid groups have sought ways to protect their staff and sites in partnership with OCHA, catalyzing the creation of the Humanitarian Notification System for Deconfliction (HNS4D). The system enables aid groups to share GPS coordinates of their sites and movements with OCHA, which in turn shares the data with parties to the conflict. In an active warzone, where the use of airpower and long-range weaponry are expected and frequent, identifying and incorporating civilian assets into strategic plans of participating forces can be critical in preventing harm or impediments to them (Reliefweb, 2020). The system is irrelevant in soliciting compliance towards international humanitarian law (IHL), but instead, serves as a vital instrument for parties intending to comply. However, compliance from participating and willing forces has been inconsistent. In effect, HNS4D has yet to garner serious trust across the international aid community present in Syria and the short history of its ongoing deployment has revealed areas in which fixes can be sought through blockchain.

This paper will discuss the present state of HNS4D in Syria and many of the issues the system presents. First, it addresses reasons for selecting OCHA’s humanitarian notification instrument in Syria. Subsequent sections outline the impetus for the initial development and eventual emergence of the Syrian HNS4D in 2014, including a set of active challenges HNS4D in Syria currently faces. The selected challenges present gaps which can be bridged using existing blockchain protocols. Next will be an illustration of the basics of blockchain technology and its core advantages and limitations, including works and concepts in archival science to demonstrate the necessity of these technologies in OCHA’s deconfliction efforts. In particular, the Starling Framework for Data Integrity will be reviewed and how its blockchain-based applications can bridge gaps in the aforementioned challenges. The paper will conclude with reflections on deconfliction.

Background

Why Syria?

The utility of blockchain in the deconfliction space is being explored in this paper because the centralized means in which OCHA’s location sharing scheme relies on has significant inherent drawbacks and bridging the technical gaps using blockchain to achieve trust among distrusting parties facilitates and echoes UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator 16.1.2, an international target to reduce all forms of violence and related deaths everywhere (UNHCR, 2017).

The Syrian war, in particular, is characterized by a complex web of diverging security interests between state and non-state actors under conditions which makes promoting deconfliction very challenging. One or more of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council participating or proxying a conflict can also hyper-politicize humanitarian interventions, normalizing impunity and softening the perception of IHL violations (Grace & Card, 2020). The war is also one of the first global conflicts to be broadcasted and shared over social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. State-sponsored disinformation campaigns on such platforms distort and fabricate incidents making the authenticity of documented and reported airstrikes difficult to discern (Bellingcat, 2020). OCHA currently does not have a working approach to assert and establish how exaggerated and unfounded such accusations are.

Emergence of HNS4D in Syria

During armed conflict, protecting civilian infrastructure and enforcing IHL require significant participation from civil society to provide eye-witness accounts and file allegations of IHL violations. The Syrian war, however, has observed an increase in attacks against medical facilities despite the strong protection granted to them under IHL. Physicians for Human Rights corroborated multiple reports of 595 documented attacks on clinics and hospitals that killed 923 medical staff (Physicians for Human Rights, 2021). In response to these events, OCHA launched a “deconfliction” strategy, encouraging hospitals, schools, and other humanitarian entities to share their locations with the Office.

In the context of this paper, humanitarian deconfliction refers to aid groups sharing the sites, activities, movements and personnel, in both static and non-static locations, with military parties to conflict for harm prevention and reduction (Parker, 2018). Since 2014, in Syria, OCHA has deconflicted the movements and sites of humanitarians deployed in areas affected by US coalition operations. HNS4D in Syria today, which includes the US Coalition Forces, Turkey and Russia, is the most robust deconfliction mechanism to date.

How HNS4D works

Aid groups and hospitals wishing to participate in HNS4D can submit their locations to OCHA’s Humanitarian Notification Team (HNT). Their eligibility may rely on their membership with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (ISAC) in Syria, but submissions by bona fide organizations outside the ISAC have also been considered. Deciding whether to approve a civilian infrastructure for protection depends on OCHA personnels assessing the concerned objects against criteria of criticality, such as the foreseeable humanitarian impact, if harmed (Reliefweb, 2020). Consequently, infrastructure that is approved for protection is typically indispensable for the survival of the civilian population, such as medical facilities and water stations. However, the veracity of the location data cannot be validated by OCHA through in-person visits, attributing to the limited presence the Office has in Syria (Reliefweb, 2020).

Once the submission of a GPS coordinate for movements or static locations is sent to HNT via hnsyria@un.org by filling out a downloadable, templated form, the Office provides further guidance on how to engage with military actors and begins monitoring the locations, once approved internally (Reliefweb, 2020). Afterwards, the Office transmits the submitted data to each participating military party by an email as well (Reliefweb, 2020). The order of processing a submission for notification can be illustrated in the following steps (Reliefweb, 2020):

Figure 1. Processing a submission for notification.

Despite these efforts, NGOs in the field such as the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) reported that they “paid a price by sharing the coordinates of the medical facilities with the [OCHA]” (Miller, 2020). The airstrikes, in fact, intensified. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SN4HR), a local monitoring group, reported 51 separate instances of attacks against civilians and healthcare facilities in April 2019 alone (Syrian Network for Human Rights, 2019). Consequently, civic organizations have justified fears that they will be intentionally targeted if their true locations are revealed, forcing them to, in some instances, share incorrect or ambiguous location data.

Challenges of implementing HNS4D

Lack of trust and transparency

Many aspects of the deconfliction system have led stakeholders across Syria to lose trust in OCHA. Without reliable assurances that participating in HNS4D will protect their facilities or that there will be accountability for those who target sites on the list, aid groups have little incentive in sharing their coordinates. A Syrian aid worker commented about the comparatively low number of humanitarians sharing their location data compared to other deconfliction initiatives in other settings: “In 2019, more deconflicted facilities were attacked. We don’t have accurate numbers published publicly by the UN about how many facilities share their coordinates…but much less than others in other countries, in Yemen or in any other country who have similar mechanisms” they said (Miller, 2020).

Humanitarian groups have expressed concern over OCHA’s lack of transparency in Syria. There have been cases of partner aid groups failing to access basic information, such as the contact information and locations of OCHA officers. This delayed information exchange can jeopardize operations if aid groups do not know who to contact when needing to connect with OCHA. In response, partners have called for the inclusion of aid groups in deconfliction planning, including efforts to build connections with and solicit feedback from humanitarians (Grace & Card, 2020). This is critical because lack of transparency can foster mistrust amongst the Office and its partners. A partner in this study mentioned perceiving that OCHA’s inability to share information reflected an intention on the Office’s part to misrepresent the true extent of its deconfliction capacity, making their operation appear more robust and resourced than they actually are (Grace & Card, 2020).

Lack of anonymization

Aid groups operating in Syria have very different perceptions of what information OCHA shares about their organizations and whether or not the Office anonymizes the gathered data. According to a survey of humanitarians in Syria on their perception of OCHA, some staff believed that the Office only shares a package of anonymized data, while others expressed that the standard of what constitutes anonymity has never been consistent (Adlparvar, 2020). There were also concerns expressed in the survey that sharing names of aid groups with the Russian forces would increase humanitarian worker’s chances of being hit. Other aid workers expressed doubts over whether the Office anonymized the data at all (Adlparvar, 2020).

Critically, this issue poses a significant problem for humanitarian workers in choosing whether or not to engage with HNS4D. Since Bashar al-Assad’s regime consider aid workers operating in opposition territories to be “aligned with terrorists” (Howe, 2016), aid organizations worry about military strikes on their staff. Because of this, humanitarians operating outside of Assad’s regime territory take incredible steps to protect the identities of their staff stationed in such areas. These groups sometimes work under different names and brandings across Syria (Miller, 2020).

Lack of accuracy

Aid workers in a survey report that the software used by NGOs to retrieve their location data sporadically fails to synchronize with software that militaries use for geographic targeting, making the information exchange inconsistent and difficult to digest. “There are different systems for coordinates that are being used, so NGOs usually use services like, the Google Maps or accessible maps or application websites that they have, but these are different kinds of coordinates from the ones that are used in the military,” (Miller, 2020) explained one participant. This presents a problem since the Russian forces have been accused of using un-synchronizable coordinates as an excuse to strike what they claim are military targets. In September 2019, Russian representative to the UN Vassily Nebenzia spoke to the press about allegations of Russian strikes on hospitals in Syria. Nebenzia stated,

“The deconfliction list reported by the UN contains hundreds of facilities claimed to be civilian. It is pretty challenging to verify it in its entirety, but our military personnel managed to do at least part of the homework and closely examine some objects submitted to us under the arrangement….And what did we find? Lots of instances of deliberate disinformation.” (Miller, 2020).

The resulting political ramifications of aid groups sharing inaccurate information are far reaching, deteriorating trust further in their capacity to share accurate information. This, compounded with an absence of proper training, leads to an increase in human and technical errors. When no one verifies the veracity of submitted location data, mistakes, inadvertently, are bound to be made (Miller, 2020).

The utility of blockchain

Centralized systems

The networks of contemporary databases can be classified in three distinct types — Centralized, Decentralized, and Distributed, of which blockchain embodies characters of both decentralized and distributed networks. A centralized system relies on a single server (/master) to oversee and control the communication across the client nodes (/slave) it is connected to. The authoritative character of this network is vulnerable to a single point of failure, a security gap which malicious actors target and take advantage of (Lemieux 2017).

Figure 2. Three kinds of networks

Distributed and decentralized systems

In contrast, while both distributed and decentralized networks can be seen starkly different from that of a centralized network, decentralization is a subset of distribution (see Figure 1). A distributed database shares and stores data across multiple nodes, but how and where transactional decisions are made can exhibit characteristics of centralization. Alternatively, a decentralized database has no single point in which a decision is made. Every node has the autonomy to make its own decisions, and the aggregation of their votes is a means to reach consensus, resulting in a “democratized” system behavior.

Blockchain is the most recognizable iteration of a contemporary decentralized storage method. Multiple nodes engage in a transparent dialogue and transactional scheme with one another, the purpose of which is to build a consensus and verify that none of the information transacted has been tampered (Distributed ledger technology: beyond block chain 2020). Critically, the more entities taking part in the system, the more secure and reliable the entire database becomes. This is because a larger community of nodes increases the number of opportunities for validation and replication (Distributed ledger technology: beyond block chain 2020). A successful validation entails blocks being broadcasted through a peer-to-peer mesh network of nodes (see Figure 2). Each individual node retains a complete or partial copy of the ledger and theoretically the copies of each node should be an exact match. If the network encounters a mismatch, that node is singled out and communicated as invalid.

Figure 3. Blocks in a blockchain are linked cryptographically through hash

Addresses on blockchains are also denoted by the hash of a public key, resembling a zip code of the destination of the asset being exchanged. Because of this, anonymity can be preserved, since the hash is what is being stored and transacted on the network, not the actual piece of data (Pal et al. 2021).

Using blockchain to address HNS4D challenges

Through blockchain, humanitarians can submit GPS coordinates of sites and verify that armed parties have received the complete version of data that they have submitted. Transactions can be made without the concern of malicious actors tampering with the coordinates or of parties later claiming they had received wrong information. Blockchain can also enable humanitarians to oversee with transparency which parties are accessing their data without interventions from OCHA; and deny certain or all parties from accessing underlying metadata, such as geotags and user information, to retain anonymity of personnel involved. A prospective blockchain fitting for HNS4D can be expected to be tailored to transparency, anonymization, and data accuracy and integrity. A notable example is the Starling Framework, which leverages cryptography, distributed systems, and other tools to reduce informational uncertainty in digital media; and to preserve and establish trust in sensitive records of human crises (Barrett 2019).

Lack of anonymization

Starling features open-source tools across three key modules: Capture, Store, and Verify (see Figure 3). Capture is a mobile framework that allows users to submit photos and audio directly to Verify and Store. Once media content is generated on the Capture app, an interim hash for the initial photograph is created, along with an interim hash for the metadata points, including timestamp, location, device ID, GPS signature, etc. Hashed forensic markers that can be validated help users to become aware of image manipulation attempts, but more significantly, Capture retains control of anonymity of how and when the photograph was captured and limits traces back to a specific device or person (Dotan 2021). Blockchain, thus, enables user privacy through representing the data in hashes rather than its actual form, and the technology empowers users to determine who can access their data, for what purpose, and for how long.

Figure 4. Illustration of the Starling Framework and the blockchain applications and hardware it uses

Through Starling, aid workers participating in HNS4D can be reassured that OCHA does not retain the control of who their data is being shared with. They can be selective of which armed parties can track their uploads, which forensic markers are being shared, and remain resilient against concerns that their identities are exposed. Aid workers stationed in opposition territories are considered as terrorists by the Assad regime and assuring anonymity across the data being exchanged can be critical to reducing the safety risks of humanitarians on-ground. Erasure of data as a means of anonymization, however, cannot be practiced in blockchain. “Right to be forgotten” provisions, for example, cannot be compiled because blockchain records are intended to be immutable and not editable, meaning whatever piece of data is uploaded on Store, while theoretically secure, will remain in its immutable audit trail (Dotan, 2021). This raises the larger problem of how to delete records or correct inaccuracies in blockchains. In the context of HNS4D, it is unclear, in the long term, what the consequences would be of not being able to achieve complete anonymity by erasing inscribed records that the aid workers upload. The possibility of uninvited or malicious actors decrypting the hashed data on Starling is extremely unlikely, but the technical vulnerabilities of Starling and different blockchain protocols are an area of concern worthy of further study.

Lack of accuracy

Finally, once the image is transmitted from Capture to Store: the application uses various blockchain protocols to orchestrate the diffusing and trusted distribution of data as a means of storage and historical preservation. Hashes of the data are replicated across multiple storage nodes. Consequently, the cryptographic algorithm in use will generate a completely different hash for the image or footage if there is a single change in the pixels of the photograph. At the same time, mathematical proofs are used to establish that data is being stored and duplicated successfully across the nodes, while alerting and repairing data corruption and errors. Essentially, detecting alterations is the core strength of blockchain, ensuring the integrity of records through the transaction processes are recorded and validated; and that the belligerents will only be seeing the GPS coordinates aid workers have uploaded.

Lack of trust and communication

Verification of data is the most important aspect in asserting total trust between aid workers and belligerents. Through Verify, a hash/certification content management system (CMS), both parties can communicate and engage experts to verify coordinates and other critical information (Dotan 2021). Essentially, once an expert analysis is cryptographically signed and data is verified as accurate, publishers release expert certifications on a ledger that can be syndicated across permitted belligerents, who are now informed that the coordinates they are seeing are accurate, expert-verified, and not tampered with. Starling Verify in this way, injects transparency and facilitates verifiable dialogue among parties and can alleviate distrust and caution originating from incidents of participants to HNS4D being struck.

What can also be achieved within the scope of a blockchain system, having supposedly reliable information that is free from human error, is the establishment of procedures which determine which parties to the conflict should be allowed to view location data relating to medical facilities. Clearly, to prevent malicious actors or parties without access from seeing the protected dataset, this must be tightly controlled. In any system, such as a blockchain-based location data sharing platform, that relies on cryptography, whoever holds the key, in theory, has the complete authority to make the data accessible or not for anyone, although in practice, this is relative to how the platform is designed procedurally (Flores et al., 2017). Key management is associated with the technical features of key generation, exchange, storage, use and replacement of keys. In a blockchain system where each dataset attached to an aid group is associated with a token and a unique address, potentially millions of keys would need to be guessed, to identify the sole key linked to OCHA. The complexity of key management leaves private keys, such as those created to support blockchain-based systems, nevertheless, vulnerable to loss, open to theft, and subject to exploitation (Pal et al., 2021).

For instance, it would be undesirable if a party to the Syrian war was to hold the private key that allows the arranging of its own level of access to location data (Pal et al. 2021). This is because it may be possible for such a party to have malicious intent or to confer upon itself the level of access that exceeds what the party is competent to view as per the Office’s judgement. To prevent such an event, OCHA as the registration authority has a vital and continuing role to play in ensuring that the agency does not establish a blanket oversight over determining the level of access for hundreds of parties (Pal et al. 2021). In practice, a registration authority could also be a bad actor. Because of this, it would be ideal to adhere to the “four eyes” principle in which two stakeholders involved in HNS4D must sign off on a change in level of access a party to the conflict holds in order to register the transaction on the blockchain (UNIDO, n.d.). In retrospect, while blockchain can be an exceptional asset for aid workers and belligerents looking to participate and comply with HNS4D, the instrument does not necessarily solicit compliance.

Challenges that cannot be remedied by blockchain

In this way, many gaps of HNS4D cannot be remedied by blockchain alone. Ultimately, while humanitarian notifications can aid warring parties improve compliance free of errors, it is the willingness of the parties to adhere to IHL that completes the mission of HNS4D.

Preservation of semantic and contextual information

For documentation purposes, all of the aforementioned attributes of blockchain records must persist through space and time. However, solely preserving the integrity of the bit structure of data is not a sufficient form of preservation. This is because semantic and contextual loss may prevent interpretability in the future (Flores et al., 2017). To explain, information on blockchains is sometimes stored in a partial form to save storage space, but the ability to understand the depth and meaning of the bits depends upon preservation of the semantic and contextual information of their origins as well, keeping them interpretable in a meaningful way. This becomes relevant in HNS4D in the area of standardizing and synchronizing coordinates across participants. For example, without the semantic and contextual detail on which mapping application was used to configure the coordinates, assessing and synchronizing coordinates would be difficult unless communication is re-established..

Accuracy of original source

Accuracy, in archival science, refers to “the degree to which data, information, documents or records are precise, correct, truthful, free of error or distortion, or pertinent to the matter” (Flores et al., 2017). Accuracy of location data, in the context of HNS4D, consequently depends on the competence of an aid worker to accurately record and submit their GPS coordinates. Consequently, accuracy varies upon the physical, procedural and technical controls over the workers collecting and registering the data into HNS4D. However, it is possible to increase the accuracy of data transferred from such systems through audits. For example, where data is manually transferred from an original paper registry to a computerized blockchain-based system, multi-signatures could be used to help improve accuracy of any data transferred into the blockchain by requiring that one key be used to record the entry and one or more keys be used to validate the correctness of the data entered into the blockchain system (Flores et al., 2017).

In instances where location data is transferred from a digital registry into a blockchain-based platform like Starling, an original record in the registry could be hashed and compared with the hash of its mirror entry in the location data sharing platform (Flores et al. 2017). A comparison of the hashes would then ensure that the records match before OCHA makes a final commitment to the blockchain-based HNS4D. Proof of the accuracy of the blockchain-based records could also be attached as metadata to the transaction record by including the hash of the original record with the metadata associated with the blockchain transaction (Sarin et al., 2018).

However, this approach would only ensure that the transaction records have been accurately transcribed from the original registry into a blockchain-based system — not that the original records were accurate in the first place. If the data is derived contemporaneously with a data transaction to a party in conflict, accuracy depends upon the degree to which data from the originating source is precise, correct, and truthful. In such cases, increasing the probability of accurate data relies upon establishing data entry input controls and constraints and requirements for linking to transaction records that corroborate the truthfulness of the location data registered on the blockchain-based platform (Sarin et al. 2017).

Conclusion

The centralized approach in which OCHA oversees its data sharing scheme lacks accuracy in exchanging data and continues to fail in anonymizing and securing the identities of aid workers involved. Coupled with prolonged attacks on humanitarian targets, developing trust with humanitarians to participate in HNS4D is difficult when nation-states seldom comply with international law. This has led some humanitarians to scrutinize the merits of HNS4D, suspecting that humanitarian notification is being used to target them intentionally. Others are less critical, arguing that the warring parties involved do not necessarily need the help of HNS4D if they actually intend on striking humanitarian sites. Debates over the effectiveness of HNS4D persist while the system continues to remain active in Syria. To restore the exhausted trust, there is significant merit in exploring the advantages of blockchain, such as in verifying transactions through sealed forensic markers, restoring data control and autonomy over to aid workers, and tamperproof storing of contents uploaded to HNS4D. Together, informational uncertainty can be significantly reduced on HNS4D, thereby, reducing communication errors and misunderstandings across stakeholders. The Starling Framework is a model blockchain-based application that possesses distinct advantages in the deconfliction space, remedying mistrust and technical gaps fraught in civil-military coordination; and thereby reducing civilian deaths and fostering peace and positive social impact on-ground.

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Daniel C. Park

Daniel C. Park

Daniel originally entered the web3 space in 2019 researching blockchain’s utility in humanitarian affairs. He currently works as a Data Journalist at Covalent