Digital Privacy

Government powers overdrawn

Whether you are a pensioner or a parent, unemployed or living with a disability, you may be one of the millions of people who receive benefits from the State. Like the NHS, the welfare state is a safety net when times get tough; no one should be ashamed of receiving benefits. So why is the government introducing powers to spy on benefit claimaints?

Welfare warfare

Successive governments have fed us a narrative of striver vs skiver, deserving vs undeserving, with benefits used as the cypher to divide the population. The truth is we all may need to call on support from time to time; we never know when our circumstances might change and it can happen suddenly. This is the social contract we sign up to with national insurance. So why is that deal used as a battering ram to dismantle our rights in that contract?

Last minute amendments to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill (DPDI), aka the Data Grab Bill, smuggle in welfare surveillance powers. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) will be able to force banks to hand over personal information for any benefit claimant, from universal credit to child benefit and pensions.

The proposals will remove safeguards and accountability for requesting financial data from institutions. The DWP could bypass data protection safeguards and gain access to the bank accounts of benefit claimants arbitrarily. As Stephen Timms MP pointed out in Parliament, these welfare surveillance powers are broadly drawn and capture the 12.6 million people receiving the State Pension.

A scandal in the making

This was tried in the Netherlands with a calamitous outcome resulting from errors in data sharing and automated decision making. The scandal over child benefits saw more than 20,000 families being wrongly accused of fraud and having benefits incorrectly withdrawn. A similar disaster happened in Australia, where an automated debt recovery scheme wrongly accused 400,000 welfare claimants of misreporting their income, resulting in them being fined.

In gifting itself such intrusive welfare surveillance powers, the UK government is sowing the seeds of a similar scandal. The likelihood of this is compounded by other measures in the DPDI Bill, particularly the unleashing of automated decision-making and limiting our right to make subject access requests.

Automating Benefits

We currently have protections against solely automated decision-making when there are life-changing or significant consequences. The DPDI Bill weakens those safeguards, exposing more areas of our lives to algorithms and all their associated biases, except where it involves special category data.

People who claim benefits will have fewer financial freedoms and will be over-exposed to algorithmic injustice. This isn’t a theoretical possibility. The DWP has been criticised already for using AI secretively to target welfare fraud “despite warnings of algorithmic bias against groups of vulnerable claimants.”

The government is opening up financial information of benefit claimants to an expanding use of AI, while weakening the rights of individuals to challenge how those decisions are being made. The lack of transparency over the algorithm used in the DWP’s Integrated Risk and Intelligence Service only serves to leave vulnerable people overexposed to harms. And it’s not like the public sector is renowned for having robust and effective IT systems – over 200,000 pensioners were underpaid by the DWP last year as a result of computer errors.

This goes further than the State Pension, as we have an aging population with complex health issues and co-morbidities. 45% of adults over the State Pension age have a disability and, of the 22.6 million people claiming some combination of benefits, i.e. more than one benefit at the same time, 12.8 million are of State Pension age (including the 12.6 million people receiving the State Pension). It’s clear that pensioners will be dragged into these welfare surveillance provisions from a variety of different angles. With the DWP algorithm already being challenged for discriminating against people with disabilities, these new welfare surveillance powers are primed for disastrous consequences.

“Welfare surveillance further stigmatises people who receive benefits, many of whom already face discrimination and negative stereotyping. It could lead to some of the most vulnerable people facing unjust accusations of fraud, and potentially having their benefits removed and their lives destroyed.”

ORG’s Legal and Policy Officer, Mariano delli Santi

What you don’t know can hurt you

While we can appeal automated decisions, it’s of little use without access or resources to scrutinise and challenge how an AI system works, particularly where there’s an inequality of technical literacy. This is made even worse when combined with changes to Subject Access Requests in the DPDI Bill. Organisations will find it easier to refuse to comply with a request to find out what data they hold about us, by lowering the threshold from ‘manifestly excessive’ to ‘vexatious’ or ‘excessive’.

If you don’t know what data is being held about you, it’s harder to challenge decisions or correct mistakes that are driving unjust outcomes. But even if we can get access, the DPDI Bill will give organisations the right to refuse requests to erase or correct data if they lack resources to do so. As AI is trained on data, any inaccurate data means automated systems will continue to make mistakes with marginalised and racialised communities feeling the brunt.

Injustice waiting to happen

The new welfare surveillance powers were slipped into the DPDI Bill by stealth to circumvent Parliamentary scrutiny. They treat vulnerable populations as potential criminals rather than individuals in need of support. In combination with weakened protections against faulty automated decision-making and curtailed rights to access our data, the DPDI Bill is an injustice waiting to happen.

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