Thursday 09 July 2020

Government’s fraud algorithm SyRI breaks human rights, privacy law

A gavel in a courtroom.

Photo: Depositphotos

The Dutch government’s algorithm-based fraud detection system SyRI should be dropped because it conflicts with the European treaty on human rights and with privacy legislation, judges in The Hague ruled on Wednesday.

SyRI, devised by social affairs ministry officials in 2014, has been used by four local authorities to draw up lists of people suspected of some form of housing or social security fraud.

The system uses an algorithm which links government organisations and draws up risk profiles based on the profiles of people already caught committing social security fraud. It then combs the records to find people with a similar risk profile who are then considered to be potential fraudsters and listed for further investigation.

The court case was brought privacy groups, the FNV trade union federation and several private individuals. They argue that SyRI makes ordinary people suspects without reason.

The system has also been criticised by UN human rights and poverty rapporteur Philip Alston who told the court by letter that it appears to discriminate against people with little money and people with a minority background.

The court ruled that SyRI conflicts with article 8 of the human rights treaty which protects people’s private lives. In addition, the data scrap which the system involves could lead to discrimination.

Judges also criticised the secrecy surrounding the way SyRI operates, which makes it difficult to monitor and control.

Last summer, Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb pulled the plug on an experiment with SyRI in one neighbourhood because ‘it went too far’. And the Volkskrant reported earlier that it is unclear if the system has detected any actual cases of fraud in the four other areas where it has been used.

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