UN says the Netherlands is “building a surveillance state for the poor”

The UN says the Netherlands is “building a surveillance state for the poor” after Poverty and Human Rights Special Rapporteur Philip Alston expressed concerns that the Dutch digital fraud tracking tool SyRI (System Risk Indication) discriminates against the poor and vulnerable.

In a recent analysis, the Special Rapporteur claims SyRI “violates international and regional human rights treaties,” especially through its “disproportionate impact on the human rights of the poorest.”

SyRI’s algorithm combines data from “a multitude of government databases” analysed by an undisclosed “risk model” to digitally predict citizens likely to commit fraud. Alston writes that “the risk model takes data from siloed databases, which were originally collected for and justified by reference to specific purposes, connects the data in ways that were neither announced nor forseen, and draws conclusions…a very intimate picture of an individual’s private life emerges from that highly intrusive process.”

The UN says since the introduction of SyRI, “it has been used exclusively in areas with a high proportion of low-income residents, migrants and ethnic minorities.” According to Alston, “whole neighborhoods are deemed suspect and are made subject to special scrutiny, which is the digital equivalent of fraud inspectors knocking on every door in a certain area and looking at every person’s records…while no such scrutiny is applied to those living in better off areas.”

The Special Rapporteur worries that members of Parliament had little interest or understanding of SyRI, “judging from the lack of oral debate and the limited written questions asked by legislators, despite severe criticism by other constitutional institutions.” Alston cites a “lack of fundamental, procedural, safeguards” for the digital tool and underlines that “the overwhelming majority of welfare recipients in the Netherlands are clearly not committing fraud and have a right not to be singled out for disproportionately intrusive monitoring which can have a variety of negative and unjustified consequences.”

Alston calls SyRI 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.”

According to the Volkskrant, in January 2018 “a coalition of opponents” sued the state for SyRI, including among others the Platform Protection of Civil Rights, the Dutch Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the national Client Council, authors Tommy Wieringa and Maxim Februari, and the trade union FNV. The UN says Alston “has made his analysis available to the court,” whose first session of this appeal is 29 October.

As a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Alston is an independent expert who conducts research, undertakes country visits to report on their situation, and writes letters “to governments and other relevant entities in situations in which violations of human rights of people living in extreme poverty are alleged to have taken place.” The Human Rights Council appointed the Australian Alston to his position in June 2014.


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