The Centre spoke with Massimo Marelli, Head of the recently opened ICRC Delegation for Cyberspace based in Luxembourg. We discussed the rationale behind the establishment of the Delegation, the challenges that ICRC and the broader humanitarian sector face in terms of cyber threats and digitalization, and how the Delegation plans to make an impact.

This interview was conducted by the Centre team. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Why did ICRC decide to establish a Delegation for Cyberspace in Luxembourg?

In the current era of digital transformation, there is an increasing need to use technologies responsibly. The humanitarian sector, which relies upon new technologies more and more, is no exception. The ICRC and the entire sector are dealing with an ever-greater set of stakeholders, which comes with both opportunities and risks. Many things could go wrong in the process of handling data. For example, malicious actors could obtain unauthorized access to sensitive humanitarian data with the intent to use it for non-humanitarian purposes. This creates risks for the safety and dignity of vulnerable people and negatively impacts humanitarian operations.

ICRC opened the Delegation for Cyberspace in November 2022 to be more deliberate about how we think about and work with technology. We need to be able to anticipate and respond to different risks brought by digitalization and find new ways to protect our digital footprint. We want to move away from only thinking about what is available and functional in terms of technology today, and instead look ahead, explore and test alternatives to understand where we should be in the long-term, always ensuring that we operate as a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian actor.

What are the priorities for the Delegation in its first year?

Our work at the Delegation has a strong research and development component and is structured around four pillars: policy, technology, community mobilization and capacity building. In terms of policy, we are exploring what it takes to ensure respect of the humanitarian principles of Neutrality, Impartiality and Independence in a digital space and how to translate that into practice in our operations. Our R&D work is focused on exploring, understanding and testing the various potential avenues and technologies that give us more leverage to ensure principled humanitarian work, identified under the Policy workstream, such as the use of free and open source solutions, routing of internet traffic and the application of robust security protocols. 

As part of our community mobilization work, we are looking into how to work with open-source software communities and ethical hackers. Finally, as part of our capacity building efforts, we are developing and delivering training for our staff and other humanitarians to help them understand and operate within the new dynamics of the digital era. 

Massimo Marelli leads the ICRC Delegation for Cyberspace based in Luxembourg.

Why is the Delegation based in Luxembourg? 

Luxembourg has a long-standing interest in this area of work and has taken a supportive approach as a ‘cyber host state’, making important investments in infrastructure and creating a supportive ecosystem. It is a great environment for this type of exploratory project to think, pilot, test and do R&D, which attracts international organizations to work here. The support and interest from Luxembourg can also be felt in the ease of doing things and openness towards innovation. 

What partners are you working with?

The Delegation has several collaborations with academia both in the fields of R&D and capacity building. We are working with the University of Cambridge on research to help better understand the meaning and perceptions of neutrality, impartiality and independence in the digital space. We are also working with Zurich Polytechnic (ETHZ) to explore, among others, how a new protocol for routing internet traffic could be used to uphold the humanitarian principles. Finally, we recently started a collaboration with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on R&D into the development and use of free and open-source technologies in humanitarian action. 

How does the Delegation work with the Centre?

The issues that we deal with cannot be tackled alone. Collaborating with other organizations working on cybersecurity and digitalization in the humanitarian sector is at the core of our work, and this of course includes the OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data. We have collaborated with the Centre for several years now on issues related to data responsibility and data protection. This has included organizing events to raise awareness on the risks and benefits of digitalization through the DigitHarium, and conducting research to better understand and address the challenges to responsible data sharing between humanitarian organizations and donors through the Humanitarian Data and Trust Initiative, which is jointly convened by ICRC, the Centre and the Government of Switzerland. We remain open to exploring more areas of collaboration for joint research as well as for advocacy to advance discussions on cyber resilience across the humanitarian system.

What do you love about your job?

I love how unexplored yet so crucial many of the topics that we work on around cybersecurity are. Digital transformation is raising a whole new series of challenges for the humanitarian sector that have not yet been thoroughly mapped and understood. This gives us free space for thinking about these issues and creating solutions, which is really something unique. 

What I also love is that at the core, my work is driven by humanitarian objectives and the need to maintain the capacity of the humanitarian sector to serve the people affected by conflict and armed violence. To do so, I need to understand the always evolving field of technology, but also take into consideration other dynamics related to international relations and geopolitics, all with the ultimate objective of upholding the dignity of affected communities, agency and accountability. My work is really at the crossroads of many very interesting fields and that is what makes it so fascinating.

What is next for the Delegation?

The Delegation is still being set up so looking ahead it is all about getting the work done. We are also currently preparing for the next three-day symposium on data protection and cybersecurity in humanitarian action to take place in January 2024 in Luxembourg. This symposium builds upon the previous one organized in November 2022 with the Luxembourg Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Luxembourg House of Cybersecurity, Luxembourg Red Cross, Luxembourg University and the Luxembourg Data Protection Commission. We have a call for briefing papers open until 29 May 2023 and we encourage anyone who may want to contribute to these important challenges to submit their proposal!