‘Digital welfare state’: big tech allowed to target and surveil the poor, UN is warned

Ed Pilkington – The Guardian Oct 16, 2019

Nations around the world are “stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia” in which artificial intelligence and other technologies are used to target, surveil and punish the poorest people, the United Nations’ monitor on poverty has warned.

Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, has produced a devastating account of how new digital technologies are revolutionizing the interaction between governments and the most vulnerable in society. In what he calls the rise of the “digital welfare state”, billions of dollars of public money is now being invested in automated systems that are radically changing the nature of social protection.

Alston’s report on the human rights implications of the shift will be presented to the UN general assembly on Friday. It says that AI has the potential to improve dramatically the lives of disadvantaged communities, but warns that such hope is being lost amid the constant drive for cost cutting and “efficiency”.

Big tech companies are being allowed to go unregulated in “human rights free-zones”, welfare budgets are being decimated and new penalties are being imposed for non-compliance on people who may be digitally illiterate or lack access to the internet. In the UK, he notes, 12 million people, or one in five of the population, do not have essential digital skills needed for modern day-to-day life.

Alston writes that “crucial decisions to go digital have been taken by government ministers without consultation, or even by departmental officials without any significant policy discussions taking place”. As a result of the absence of accountability, “digital technologies are employed in the welfare state to surveil, target, harass and punish beneficiaries, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among them”.

A New York-based lawyer, Alston has become a piercing critic of inequality and disdain for basic human rights. In June 2018 he caused major ructions with the Trump administration by reporting that it was cruelly forcing millions of people into deprivation with its tax cuts for the rich. He went on to anger the British government with his damning report on austerity in the UK.

Now he is likely to displease several governments who will find his report uncomfortable reading. He says that the normal state of affairs whereby governments are accountable to their citizens has been turned upside down by the introduction of automated decision-making and the removal of human discretion from welfare systems.

“In such a world, citizens become ever more visible to their governments, but not the other way around.”

Alston’s report also tears a strip out of Big Tech companies who he says are acting as forces unto themselves. The advent of the digital revolution has allowed the private sector to appropriate huge swaths of welfare state almost without public comment.

He points to examples from around the globe of companies involved in welfare systems: Net 1’s subsidiary Cash Paymaster Services together with MasterCard were initially involved in South Africa’s social grant distribution system which raised privacy concerns because of its biometric data collection. In Australia, Indue and Visa helped introduce cashless debit card trials, and IBM was central to the multimillion-dollar Sams system in Canada, the US, Germany and New Zealand.

The report states that in many schemes, the role and responsibility of these corporations are opaque, rendering public accountability impossible. “A handful of powerful executives are replacing governments and legislators in determining the directions in which societies will move and the values and assumptions which will drive those developments,” Alston writes.

Looking to the future, the UN monitor calls for Silicon Valley to be made accountable through regulation. The self-regulation that has been permitted in the big tech sector, uniquely so among major sectors of the economy, must end and technology companies must “legally be required to respect applicable human rights standards”.

That includes addressing the increasing use of data matching that is used to punish and criminalize low-income people. It also involves bringing under control the “evermore refined surveillance options that enable around-the-clock monitoring of beneficiaries”.

The UN report was drawn from Alston’s country visits to the UK, US and elsewhere as well as 60 submissions from 34 countries. He concludes on a rallying note, saying it is not too late to drop the obsession with fraud and the “undeserving poor”.

Instead of inflicting misery on millions, digital technology could be used as a force for good. It could “ensure a higher standard of living for the vulnerable and disadvantaged, devise new ways of caring for those left behind. That would be the real digital welfare state revolution.”


2 responses to “‘Digital welfare state’: big tech allowed to target and surveil the poor, UN is warned”

  1. Yes…I am experiencing something of this nature right now.
    Having applied for the NZ Pension about a year ago….everything seemed to be well and good.
    Then I received notification from the pension people that I had to fill out a form concerning the British govt since I had worked in Britain….”and might be eligible for the British pension”.
    Infact they were checking to see if I was double dipping….fair enough.
    I informed them I was under constant surveillance by BOTH the British and NZ secret police and had been for several years…..not that I had broken any laws…merely exercised my supposed right to free speech…..So I informed them….the authorities would have ALREADY have informed them IF I was cheating the system…..SINCE THIS IS SOP TO SILENCE POLITICAL DISSIDENTS….”Get them on unrelated breaches of the law”. (The rape charges against Assange and Tommy Robinsons mortgage fiddling)
    The authorities have warned me if I dont fill out these new forms….they will stop my pension.Thats interesting…..a portent for the future…..stopping my pension because I wont cooperate with authorities in another country….THE FUCKING CHEEK OF IT….
    This matter is ongoing….the NZ Police even took my car licence off me…..even though the trumped up charges were not at the level to warrant cancellation of my licence……
    As the article above indicates….unless you have spare money….you are pretty much defenceless against the state authorities.
    I have categoric proof that the NZ Police arranged with staff in banks to reveal my bank details…..ILLEGALLY.
    Its appears they are interfering with comments on the truthseeker.
    All of this law breaking by the authorities has been greatly “facilitated ” by the Christchurch gun attack.It has given the authorities carte blanche to do as they please…..a mini version of what happened in the USA following 9/11…..

  2. Ted, thank you for sharing your experiences . I have to ask if all of the money that is being spent on these “digital welfare technologies” ends up costing much more than any real or perceived fraud. ! Let’s see what would happen if (for just two examples) digital welfare technologies would be applied to ferret out waste and overspending in the Pentagon, or the big “defense” contractors……..