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World stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia

NEW YORK (17 October 2019) – A UN human rights expert has expressed concerns about the emergence of the “digital welfare state”, saying that all too often the real motives behind such programs are to slash welfare spending, set up intrusive government surveillance systems and generate profits for private corporate interests.

“As humankind moves, perhaps inexorably, towards the digital welfare future it needs to alter course significantly and rapidly to avoid stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia,” the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, says in a report to be presented to the General Assembly on Friday.

The digital welfare state is commonly presented as an altruistic and noble enterprise designed to ensure that citizens benefit from new technologies, experience more efficient government, and enjoy higher levels of well-being. But, Alston said, the digitization of welfare systems has very often been used to promote 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 behavioural 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.

“Digital welfare states thereby risk becoming a Trojan Horses for neoliberal hostility towards social protection and regulation”, said the UN Special Rapporteur. “Moreover, empowering governments in countries with significant rule of law deficits by endowing them with the level of control and the potential for abuse provided by these biometric ID systems should send shudders down the spine of anyone even vaguely concerned to ensure that the digital age will be a human rights friendly one”.

Alston said governments justified the introduction of expensive and complex biometric digital identity card systems on the grounds that they would improve welfare services and reduce fraud.

“The process is commonly referred to as ‘digital transformation’ by governments and the tech consultancies that advise them, but this somewhat neutral term should not be permitted to conceal the revolutionary, politically-driven, character of many such innovations,” Alston said. “Systems of social protection and assistance are increasingly driven by digital data and technologies that are used for diverse purposes, including to automate, predict, identify, surveil, detect, target and punish.”

The dominant role of the private sector in designing, constructing and even operating significant parts of the digital welfare state is a major reason for concern, according to Alston. “Most Governments have stopped short of requiring Big Tech companies to abide by human rights standards, and because the companies themselves have steadfastly resisted any such efforts, the companies often operate in a virtually human rights free-zone,” said Alston.

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 and grounded in hard law. There is no shortage of analyses warning of the dangers for human rights of various manifestations of digital technology and especially artificial intelligence. “But none has adequately captured the full array of threats represented by the emergence of the digital welfare state,” the UN expert said.

The report is based on several country visits as well as a global consultation that drew submissions from more than 30 countries around the world. There is remarkable consistency in the empirical evidence from countries in the high income countries in the north as well as from the Global South.

Alston’s presentation of the report at the General Assembly will be broadcast live on UN Web TV on Friday 18 October, during the Third Committee session in the morning from 10 am (GMT-4).

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