Last Friday, October 18th, Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, presented his report on human rights and digital welfare states to the UN General Assembly. The report, a result of Alston’s country visits to the UK, the US as well as 60 submissions from 34 countries, warns of the misuse and abuse of technology in digital welfare states and concludes that governments should reconsider their use of technologies in the delivery of public services. In Alston’s words, technologies that were supposed to help people access vital government services, are instead being used to “surveil, target, harass and punish” the poor and the vulnerable.

Illustration of a digitized bread surrounded by binary codeAlston’s reports calls attention to the emergence of the digital welfare state, with “high and middle income countries, [implementing] electronic voting, technology-driven surveillance and control including through facial recognition programs, algorithm-based predictive policing, the digitization of justice and immigration systems, online submission of tax returns and payments, and many other forms of electronic interactions between citizens and different levels of government are becoming the norm. And in lower income countries, national systems of biometric identification are laying the foundations for comparable developments, especially in systems to provide social protection, or ‘welfare’”. And illustrates how the great promise of the digital welfare state often comes accompanied by “deep reductions in the overall welfare budget, a narrowing of the beneficiary pool, the elimination of some services, the introduction of demanding and intrusive forms of conditionality, the pursuit of behavioral modification goals, the imposition of stronger sanctions regimes, and a complete reversal of the traditional notion that the state should be accountable to the individual”.

The new report also builds upon Alston’s prior report on privatization of public services more generally to highlight issues arising in relation to social protection services and the precise role and responsibility of private actors in proposing, developing and operating digital technologies in welfare states around the world. In particular, the pressing need to adequate existing human rights accountability mechanisms for dealing with the challenges presented by widespread privatization.

In his new report, Alston draws attention to the fact that technology corporations often operate in “human rights free-zone[s]”, exacerbating the systematic elimination of human rights protections and leading to a lack of transparency that renders any effort to hold government and private actors accountable futile.

Ultimately, Philip Alston requests societies to rely on the rights discourse in responding to privatization and notes that the “human rights community has thus far done a very poor job of persuading industry, government, or seemingly society at large, of the fact that a technologically-driven future will be disastrous if it is not guided by respect for human rights that is in turn grounded in law”.