The "Undeserving Poor:" A framework for researching and challenging aspects of social benefits systems that surveil, control, and punish people

researching social benefits

Picture: Tyler Merbler CC BY 2.0

As part of its new strategic programme aimed at safeguarding peoples’ dignity, Privacy International (PI) is challenging the role of surveillance and data exploitation in social benefits systems. Corporate, governmental, and institutional actors are increasingly converging to apply surveillance and data exploitation tools to social benefits systems, which too often furthers the interest of those with wealth and power to the detriment of people in vulnerable situations, who ought to be empowered by social benefits systems. 

We have developed a framework to raise questions about social benefits systems at the intersection of privacy and inequality, guide our work, and provide a resource for others who are examining social benefits from a similar perspective. We emphasize that this framework is not aimed at undermining the provision of social benefits or to seek their abolishment. We also recognize that there is significant diversity in the experiences of people most adversely affected by these aspects of social benefits systems, as well as the diversity in the policy goals, institutional approaches, forms of intervention, cultural contexts and structures of social benefits programs around the world. Nonetheless, we believe this framework provides a useful lens for advocating to ensure that social benefits systems better allow people to access their economic, economic, and cultural rights.

This framework builds on previous scholarship, which we have compiled in a reading list, and concerns raised by many civil society, social justice and human rights organisations worldwide about the impact of automated decision-making and the digitization of social protection systems on human rights.

Why we challenge aspects of social benefits systems that surveil, control, and punish

There is an urgent need to draw attention to and expose the underpinnings of systems that have a negative impact on human rights and allow for the categorisation, mass surveillance, exclusion, and control of people from lower-income communities or people who are otherwise in need of assistance. These aspects of certain social benefits systems stand in opposition to the goals of social protection, which should be to give people the equal opportunities, security, and privacy required to freely and fully participate in society.

States have an obligation to progressively realise economic, social, and cultural rights, which include rights to adequate food, to adequate housing, to health, to social security.  While technology can help governments meet these obligations using maximum available resources, and ensure people live with dignity, we need to be critical of ways technology, governments, the private sector, international institutions and foundations may, intentionally or unintentionally, undermine these obligations, reproduce existing power asymmetries, and amplify injustice.

People’s enjoyment of their economic, social, and cultural rights should not be conditioned on being subjected to surveillance, control, and punishment. Furthermore, people should not be discriminatorily subjected to such surveillance and control because of their racial and cultural background, gender and sexuality, socio-economic circumstances, immigration status, or perceived mental or physical difference. In other words, the resources that people rely on to support themselves and their households should not be conditioned on the erosion of their right to privacy and equality, nor undermine their dignity.

It is necessary to research, expose, and challenge surveillance regimes in social benefits systems from the perspective of how these practices and technologies are used to normalize and maintain systems of capitalist, imperialist, and patriarchal control, ethnonationalism, hetero-normativity and ableism.

For the purpose of analysing and critiquing the ways infringements of people's rights are inherent to the design and implementation of many social benefits systems, we have created a framework to examine such systems through three stages. Those stages are not meant to be strict and comprehensive representations of all social benefits systems, but they help illustrate the various ways in which social benefits claimants can face surveillance and exclusion.

Those stages are:

  • Stage 1 - Applying for social benefits: facing exclusion
  • Stage 2 - Maintaining social benefits: under surveillance and control
  • Stage 3 - The policing of social benefits: punishing poverty

Researching, exposing, and challenging these three stages will lead to the development of clear demands and recommendations to ensure that social benefits systems function as systems of empowerment rather than systems that fail to adequately transfer resources, knowledge, and power to the communities they ought to benefit.