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Wed Oct 16, 2019, 07:21 PM

'Digital Welfare State, Automating Poverty,' Big Tech Allowed To Target, Punish The Poor: UN Rep

‘Digital welfare state’: big tech allowed to target and surveil the poor, UN is warned. 'Automating poverty' series. The Guardian, Oct. 16, 2019. UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty says in devastating account big tech companies are being allowed to go unregulated in ‘human right free-zones’ and not held accountable.

Nations around the world are “stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia” in which artificial intelligence and other technologies are used to target, surveil and punish the poorest people, the United Nations’ monitor on poverty has warned. Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, has produced a devastating account of how new digital technologies are revolutionizing the interaction between governments and the most vulnerable in society. In what he calls the rise of the “digital welfare state”, billions of dollars of public money is now being invested in automated systems that are radically changing the nature of social protection.

Alston’s report on the human rights implications of the shift will be presented to the UN general assembly on Friday. It says that AI has the potential to improve dramatically the lives of disadvantaged communities, but warns that such hope is being lost amid the constant drive for cost cutting and “efficiency”. Big tech companies are being allowed to go unregulated in “human rights free-zones”, welfare budgets are being decimated and new penalties are being imposed for non-compliance on people who may be digitally illiterate or lack access to the internet. In the UK, he notes, 12 million people, or one in five of the population, do not have essential digital skills needed for modern day-to-day life.

Alston writes that “crucial decisions to go digital have been taken by government ministers without consultation, or even by departmental officials without any significant policy discussions taking place”. As a result of the absence of accountability, “digital technologies are employed in the welfare state to surveil, target, harass and punish beneficiaries, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among them”.

A New York-based lawyer, Alston has become a piercing critic of inequality and disdain for basic human rights. In June 2018 he caused major ructions with the Trump administration by reporting that it was cruelly forcing millions of people into deprivation with its tax cuts for the rich. He went on to anger the British government with his damning report on austerity in the UK...

More, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/oct/16/digital-welfare-state-big-tech-allowed-to-target-and-surveil-the-poor-un-warns

~ The “British welfare state is gradually disappearing behind a webpage and an algorithm.” ~ Philip Alston.

- -'The disastrous roll-out of the UK's digital welfare system is harming those most in need.' Human Rights Watch, June 10, 2019. The UK government has embarked on an ambitious strategy to digitise and automate the delivery of welfare services, but misplaced reliance on these technologies is threatening to further unravel the social safety net.

Last month, the United Nations expert on poverty and human rights and Human Rights Watch published their respective findings on the state of poverty in the UK, documenting the toll of austerity policies on the rights of the poorest people in British society. The UN report, written by Professor Philip Alston, warned in particular that the “British welfare state is gradually disappearing behind a webpage and an algorithm.”

The country’s transition to digital welfare is closely linked to its austerity-motivated efforts to slash spending on welfare and other essential public services, while at the same time fundamentally restructuring the social security system. In 2012, the government created Universal Credit, which consolidated six social security benefits into a single benefit paid monthly.

Universal Credit is designed to be “digital-by-default”: most beneficiaries are expected to apply for and manage their benefits through an online portal, and offline means of obtaining benefits have been pared back. The Department of Work and Pensions, which oversees Universal Credit, has claimed that the online delivery of benefits would make them “easier to access” and “cheaper to provide.”

In practice, however, the rollout of Universal Credit reveals a mismatch between the government’s digital aspirations and the rights of some of the country’s most vulnerable people. The UN report found that many claimants who lack digital literacy skills or cannot afford internet access at home experience difficulties claiming their benefits online. The burgeoning demand for digital assistance with Universal Credit has transformed public libraries, which provide free computer services, into makeshift crisis centres – a role they are ill-equipped to undertake in light of staff shortages and their own budget cuts.

The UK is not alone in its struggles with digital welfare. A growing number of countries have botched similar efforts..When municipal governments in the United States and Canada replaced caseworkers with automated systems to process welfare claims, the underpayment and denial of benefits surged. Thousands of welfare claimants were wrongly accused of benefits fraud in Michigan because of design flaws in the state’s automated fraud detection system.

In the UK, these failures are increasing the strain on welfare claimants, who are already suffering from sanctions for falling short of work requirements and from reductions in their benefits over the last decade. Despite these red flags, the government is pressing on with its digital transformation of the welfare system..

More, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/06/10/disastrous-roll-out-uks-digital-welfare-system-harming-those-most-need#

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