Call for submissions: Thematic report to the UN General Assembly on digital technology, social protection and human rights

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is preparing a thematic report to the UN General Assembly on the human rights impacts, especially on those living in poverty, of the introduction of digital technologies in the implementation of national social protection systems. The report will be presented to the General Assembly in New York in October 2019.

Social protection is defined by the International Labour Organization as “the set of policies and programmes designed to reduce and prevent poverty and vulnerability throughout the life cycle. Social protection includes benefits for children and families, maternity, unemployment, employment injury, sickness, old age, disability, survivors, as well as health protection. Social protection systems address all these policy areas by a mix of contributory schemes (social insurance) and non-contributory tax-financed benefits, including social assistance.” Social protection systems are also sometimes referred to as ‘welfare systems’ and essential elements of ‘welfare states’.

During the Special Rapporteur’s recent country visits, civil society actors and experts have drawn attention to both positive and negative human rights impacts resulting from the introduction of digital technologies in the implementation of national social protection systems. These potentially affect welfare systems in the Global North as well as in the Global South, although different domestic political, economic, legal and cultural contexts will produce different outcomes. The digital technologies involved include, for example: online platforms through which citizens can interact with welfare bureaucracies; automated systems which collect and analyze data to determine eligibility for social protection benefits; biometric identification of beneficiaries; and artificial intelligence tools to identify the risk of potential benefit fraud or to assess the need for social assistance. All human rights – economic, social and cultural, as much as civil and political – are potentially affected by these (newer and older) digital technologies.

The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. UN independent experts regularly address thematic reports to the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly on topics they consider to be of relevance to their mandate. The Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, is a Professor of Law at New York University working in the field of international law and international human rights law. He has extensive experience as an independent UN human rights expert.

Call for submissions

The Special Rapporteur invites all interested governments, civil society organizations, academics, international organizations, activists, corporations and others, to provide written input for his thematic report. The Special Rapporteur is keen to hear from individuals and organizations with different areas of expertise, including, but not limited to: social protection systems, digital technologies, digital rights, welfare rights, human rights, and development.

Respondents are requested to limit their comments to a maximum of 2,500 words. Additional supporting materials, such as reports, academic studies, and other types of background materials may be annexed to the submission.

While all submissions are welcome and the questions below are not meant to be exhaustive, the Special Rapporteur would be grateful for comments that address one or more of the following issues:

  1. There appears to be relatively little attention paid to the impact of digital technologies on national social protection systems. It would therefore be most helpful if written submissions could focus on specific case studies involving the introduction of digital technologies in national social protection systems, and address some of the following elements:

    • In which part of the social protection system were digital technologies introduced;
    • What kind of digital technologies were introduced;
    • What were the stated objective(s) cited by politicians and government when introducing those technologies, and how did these reflect the broader political context;
    • Were any international organizations involved in the domestic debate about the introduction of digital technologies in the national social protection system;
    • Was there a specific legal basis for the introduction of these digital technologies in the social protection system;
    • Whether any analysis was undertaken by the government, legislative branch or other state institutions of the implications of the introduction of these technologies in the social protection system from the perspective of existing legal frameworks;
    • The extent to which governments relied on the private sector for the design, building and operation of these technologies in the social protection system;
    • The costs involved in the design, building and operation of these technologies in the social protection system;
    • The expected and actual cost-savings realized through the use of these digital technologies in the social protection system;

  2. Without repeating information provided above, what lessons can be learned from the ways in which digital technologies have been introduced in other parts of government, such as policing, the court system, immigration, border control, and intelligence?

  3. What human rights concerns might arise in connection with the introduction of digital technologies in social protection systems?     
                                                            
    • Debate on the impact of digital technologies on human rights generally focuses on a limited range of civil and political rights, such as privacy, data protection, and freedom of expression. In addition to identifying specific civil and political rights that might be implicated in the social protection context, how are economic and social rights (such as the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living) affected?
    • In what ways, both positive and negative, might the use of these technologies affect the rights of women, children, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, minorities, LGBTIand other groups protected under international human rights law?
    • What impact has the introduction of digital technologies in social protection systems had on people living in poverty. How are their rights, such as to privacy and social security, affected and how are they impacted differently by comparison with people who are not poor? Is the prohibition on discrimination on the basis of property, birth or other status (see e.g. article 2 (2) of the ICESCR & ICCPR) relevant in this context?
    • Do unavoidable tradeoffs between rights arise in the context of the application of digital technologies in national social protection systems? For example, between the right to privacy and the right to receive social protection from the State?
    • What are the human rights implications of the involvement of private corporations in the development, use and operation of digital technologies in social protection systems and what can be said about these developments from the perspective of the field of Business and Human Rights?
    • Is the existing corpus of international human rights law adequate to address the specific injustices that might arise in this context or are new rights, or new types of standards, required?
    • What are good examples of the use of international human rights law, the language of human rights and/or international human rights mechanisms to contest injustices that have arisen with the introduction of digital technologies in domestic social protection systems? Examples can range from litigation to public advocacy and from protests to parliamentary inquiries.
    • What is the relevance of debates such as Fairness, Accountability and Transparency in machine learning and the broader debate on ethics and new digital technologies for human rights? To what extent does a human rights perspective on digital technologies in social protection systems have added value compared to debates on ethical aspects of new technologies?

  4. What contextual circumstances affect the impact of digital technologies in specific social protection systems on human rights?

    • To what extent have post-9/11 security concerns and surveillance measures by governments affected the introduction and shape of digital technologies in social protection systems?
    • To what extent have debates about the respective roles of the public and private sector affected the introduction of digital technologies in social protection systems?
    • To what extent has the introduction of digital technologies in social protection systems contributed to the schemes to the surveillance, control, and exclusion of the poor?
    • Has the introduction of digital technologies in social protection systems been treated as a matter for political and public debate, or has it been treated more as an internal, technocratic, matter for government bureaucracies?
    • Have international organizations, such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, influenced the introduction of digital technologies in government social protection systems in your country?
    • Which existing laws and regulations are most relevant in curbing the risks of introducing digital technologies in social protection systems? For example: data protection law, freedom of information law, intellectual property law, and procurement law.

  5. Would you have specific recommendations about addressing both the human rights risks involved in the introduction of digital technologies in social protection systems as well as maximizing positive human rights outcomes?

The Special Rapporteur greatly appreciates the efforts that go into making such contributions and looks forward to reading the submissions.

How to send your written submission to the Special Rapporteur?  

Submissions can be sent to srextremepoverty@ohchr.orguntil 17 May, 2019 (6pm Geneva time). Kindly send your submission as an attachment to an email.

By default, all submissions will be treated as confidential and the issues raised will not be attributed to specific individuals or organizations. However, if you would like your submission to be published on the website of the Special Rapporteur, please explicitly indicate your consent to publication in your submission.

The Special Rapporteur will accept submissions via encrypted email at christiaan.vanveen@law.nyu.edu with this public PGP key. If you have concerns about digital security, you may wish to contact an organization working on these issues. The organization Access Now has a free digital security helpline to help keep individuals and organizations safe online. Inquiries can be sent to help@accessnow.org

Media inquiries

The Special Rapporteur’s report will be presented to the UN General Assembly in October 2019 and will be made public around the same time.

Media inquiries, including requests to attend the presentation of the thematic report at the General Assembly in New York, may be directed to Ellie Robb (erobb@ohchr.org) and Christiaan van Veen (christiaan.vanveen@law.nyu.edu)
Twitter:  @Alston_UNSR
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