The Netherlands is building a surveillance state for the poor, says UN rights expert
16 October 2019
GENEVA (16 October 2019) – A digital tool used by the Netherlands to detect welfare fraud discriminates against the poorest members of society and undermines the rights to privacy and social security, says UN human rights expert Philip Alston.
The tool, called the System Risk Indication (SyRI), allows central and local government authorities to combine broad categories of data previously stored separately, analyse them using an undisclosed "risk model", and identify some people as more likely to commit benefit fraud. Since its introduction, it has been used exclusively in areas with a high proportion of low-income residents, migrants and ethnic minorities.
"New technology is important in making welfare systems not just more efficient, but also in ensuring fairness and justice. To do this requires a degree of transparency, and assurances that particular groups are not being unfairly singled out," said Alston the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
"SyRI is part of a global trend of introducing digital tools in welfare states without taking into account the potentially devastating consequences they may have on a range of internationally protected human rights, from the right to privacy and data protection to the right to social security.
"This system can have a hugely negative impact on the rights of poor individuals without according them due process. The problem is made much worse by the fact that when the program was eventually given a legal basis, there was virtually no debate in the Dutch Parliament, no media attention, and virtually no transparency in how the system works. The result is that its assumptions remain a mystery even to those who have studied it at length."
Human rights and welfare rights groups, together with concerned citizens, have sued the Dutch State over SyRI, claiming that it violates international and regional human rights treaties. Alston has made his analysis available to the court, emphasising in particular the disproportionate impact on the human rights of the poorest.
The litigation is an important opportunity for the Dutch courts to follow the lead set by courts in various other countries, which have recognised the dangers of increasingly digital welfare states that fail to insist on appropriate human rights protections in both the design and use of such systems.
Alston, who is presenting a report to the UN General Assembly in New York on digital welfare states and human rights on 18 October, focusing on countries across the globe, pointed out that the onus was on governments to dispel the notion that systems like SyRI were disproportionally targeted at the poorest and most marginalised in society.
"In the Netherlands, a country recently labelled a 'tax haven' by the European Parliament, innovative experiments with the use of digital technologies to track down tax fraud among middle-class and richer groups have been halted because of privacy concerns, yet similar rights concerns relating to SyRI expressed by regulators and civil society groups have been ignored," he said.
Mr. Philip Alston (Australia) took up his functions as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014. As a Special Rapporteur, he is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.