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UN Special Rapporteur and rights groups warn of risks from biometrics and AI in welfare systems


The potential of biometric ID systems for abuse in some countries is a major threat to individuals, and current practices risk the world “stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia,” according UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston. Both his report and an announcement from Privacy International of a new campaign to challenge the role of “surveillance and data exploitation in social benefits systems” warn of serious concerns with the processing of personal data, the monitoring and surveillance of beneficiaries, and an alleged unbreakable connection between these systems and the surveillance state, and what the announcement calls “the broader data exploitation ecosystem.”

Governments often digitize welfare systems with the promise of significant budget savings, Alston notes in his annual report to the UN General Assembly.

“Digital welfare states thereby risk becoming Trojan Horses for neoliberal hostility towards social protection and regulation,” says the UN Special Rapporteur. “Moreover, empowering governments in countries with significant rule of law deficits by endowing them with the level of control and the potential for abuse provided by these biometric ID systems should send shudders down the spine of anyone even vaguely concerned to ensure that the digital age will be a human rights friendly one.”

Privacy International’s announcement notes that the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has ordered a halt to the rollout of the compulsory biometric Public Services Card, and the government has refused to comply.

The automation of decision-making processes with algorithms and artificial intelligence is also cited as a top concern by Alston and Privacy International.

A group of seven organizations, made up of Access Now, AlgorithmWatch, Amnesty International, Child Poverty Action Group, Human Rights Watch, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, and Privacy International have called for governments to heed the warning and build human rights protections into their welfare system digitization efforts. Privacy International also submitted to the Special Rapporteur during the consultation process.

The digitization of social benefits systems has frequently led to a reversal of responsibilities, with individuals called on by governments to prove they are deserving of benefits, according to Alston. He suggests that ‘digital transformation’ efforts by governments are often presented as attempts to improve systems and prevent fraud, but are in fact politically driven.

“The UN expert’s findings show that automating welfare services poses unique and unprecedented threats to welfare rights and privacy,” comments Amos Toh, senior artificial intelligence and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Using technology to administer welfare has risks and is not a panacea for rights-based reforms that safeguard the dignity and autonomy of society’s most vulnerable people.”

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