The SyRI case: a landmark ruling for benefits claimants around the world

syri case netherlands district court the hague

Photo by Jorik Kleen on Unsplash

Today, the District Court of the Hague ruled that the right to privacy prevailed over the hunt against alleged benefits fraudsters. The ruling could have huge implications for the future of digital welfare around the world.

In NJCM cs/ De Staat der Nederlanden (NJCM vs the Netherlands), also known as the SyRI case, the court considered the legality of the System Risk Indication (SyRI), a system designed by the Dutch government to process large amounts of data collected by various Dutch public authorities to identify those most likely to commit benefits fraud.

The court has now concluded that the use of SyRI is unlawful as it violates the right to privacy. The court found that the Dutch government had failed to strike a balance between the right to privacy and the public interest in detecting welfare fraud, and that the use of SyRI was disproportionate to the aim it sought to achieve.

The claim was brought by a coalition of welfare and digital rights NGOs, including the Public Interest Litigation Project and Privacy First.

As more and more countries turn to digital welfare systems, the far-reaching consequences of this ruling are difficult to overstate. Indeed, in his report on digital welfare released at the end of last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty noted the appetite from governments worldwide to invest in digital welfare. The Special Rapporteur warned against the grave risk of “stumbling, zombie-like, into a digital welfare dystopia.”

At Privacy International, we continue to observe the development of those systems, which raise great concerns for the right to privacy and dignity of benefits claimants. The deployment of austerity measures across the world and the entrenchment of a partisan political narrative around the so-called benefits cheats are leading governments to invest in programmes aimed at detecting alleged fraudsters rather than ensuring that benefits are being delivered to those who need them. Systems very similar to SyRI are currently being used in other countries, including the UK.

This trend, whilst harmful for the many, is rife with business opportunities for the few. Companies are successfully taking advantage of shrinking government budgets to sell programmes which shape how benefits are delivered and derive profit from the destitution of people in vulnerable situations. Artificial Intelligence, in particular, is being developed in an attempt to detect fraud before it happens.

Today, the SyRI ruling marks the beginning of the rights-based resistance against the surveillance of welfare claimants. It is time for this toxic narrative, that depicts people in vulnerable situations as a threat to our society, to be challenged. Welfare is in place to protect the most vulnerable and we think that an efficient welfare system is one that is efficient at delivering benefits; not a system that tracks people on a mass scale to deprive a few individuals of their benefits.

This narrative is not only toxic and counter-productive - it can also be lethal. Last week, an inquest in the UK revealed that Errol Graham, a man from Nottingham, had died of starvation in his flat after his benefits were withdrawn - only months after the Special Rapporteur decried the effects of austerity in the UK. Back in 2018, India saw cases of people who had died after their benefits were stopped following the requirement that benefits be tied to their Aadhaar ID number, a biometrics identification system.

Those cases made the headlines but countless families across the world live with the uncertainty and fear that the money they rely on to survive will not be given to them because a computer said so. It is time for this to end and for us to see other courts across the world following the example of the Netherlands in banning those systems that violate our most fundamental rights.