Ruling by Dutch court 'stops government attempts to spy on the poor'

By agency reporter
February 8, 2020

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, applauded a landmark ruling by the District Court of the Hague in The Netherlands on 5 February 2020. The court ordered the immediate halt to a digital benefit fraud detection tool targeted at poor neighbourhoods in the Netherlands because it violated human rights norms.

“This is a clear victory for all those who are justifiably concerned about the serious threats digital welfare systems pose for human rights”, said the human rights expert.

“This decision sets a strong legal precedent for other courts to follow. This is one of the first times a court anywhere has stopped the use of digital technologies and abundant digital information by welfare authorities on human rights grounds”, added Alston.

The litigation revolved around a tool called 'System Risk Indication' (SyRI). Used to identify specific individuals as more likely to commit benefit fraud, it gives central and local authorities wide-ranging powers to share and analyze data that was previously kept in separate 'silos'.

SyRI employs a hidden algorithmic risk model and has been exclusively targeted at neighborhoods with mostly low-income and minority residents. Through SyRI, entire poor neighbourhoods and their inhabitants were targeted and spied on digitally, without any concrete suspicion of individual wrongdoing.

A broad coalition of human rights and welfare rights groups, joined by concerned citizens, sued the Dutch state in 2018, claiming that SyRI violates regionally and internationally protected human rights norms.

Last year, the Special Rapporteur provided to the court with a detailed human rights analysis, in which he concluded that SyRI discriminates against the poorest members of Dutch society and undermines their internationally protected human rights to privacy and to social security.

The Dutch court in its judgment today expresses concern about the “significant effect of risk indications on the privacy of affected individuals”. The SyRI legislation contains insufficient safeguards against invasions of privacy by this tool, according to the court, including a serious lack of transparency about its functioning. In the absence of more information about how SyRI works, the court warns that the system may discriminate on the basis of socio-economic or migrant status, agreeing with similar concerns expressed by the Special Rapporteur.

“By applying universal human rights standards, this Dutch court is setting a standard that can be applied by courts elsewhere. The litigation and its outcome are likely to inspire activists in other countries to file similar legal challenges to address the risks of emerging digital welfare systems”, said the Special Rapporteur.

SyRI is anything but unique. Such tools are part of a global trend toward the introduction and expansion of digital technologies in welfare states. All too often, however, the potentially devastating consequences of these systems for the human rights of the poorest and most marginalised are completely overlooked.

In October, Alston presented a groundbreaking report to the UN General Assembly about the emergence of the “digital welfare state” in countries around the globe. He warned that humankind “needs to alter course significantly and rapidly to avoid stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia”.

The Dutch state can still appeal the court ruling, but Alston is confident that the court decision is already a game-changer: “When government experts experimented with predecessors to SyRI for close to a decade, legislators did nothing to stop it. When SyRI was finally given a legal basis, the law passed Dutch parliament almost unnoticed.

“I predict that this judgment will be a wake-up call for politicians and others who were asleep before, not just in the Netherlands, but in many other countries where Governments are experimenting with digitising government.”

* Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


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