Europe Limits Government by Algorithm. The US, Not So Much
One evening last June, residents from the Hillesluis and Bloemhof neighborhoods on the south side of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, crowded into a community room at their local playground. Many wore headscarves and some arrived after a protest march from a local mosque. The residents had assembled to learn more about a government system called SyRI that had quietly flagged thousands of people in their low-income communities to investigators as more likely to commit benefits fraud. “People were very, very angry,” says Maureen van der Pligt, an official with union federation FNV, which helped organize the meeting.
On Wednesday, van der Pligt and the concerned residents were planning a party. The district court of the Hague shut down SyRI, citing European human rights and data privacy laws.
The case demonstrates how privacy regulations and human rights laws can rein in government use of automation. It’s among several recent examples of European regulations limiting government programs that turn algorithms and artificial intelligence on citizens. In the US, however, such guardrails generally are lacking.
SyRI, for Systeem Risico Indicatie, or System Risk Indicator, was created by the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs in 2014 to identify people deemed to be at high risk of committing benefit fraud. Legislation passed by the Dutch parliament allowed the system to compile 17 categories of government data, including tax records, land registry files, and vehicle registrations. Four cities used the tool, in each case pointing it only at specific neighborhoods with high numbers of low-income and immigrant residents.
The Dutch government said SyRI was necessary to help fight fraud. Civil society groups suspicious of the project began investigating the tool and talking with residents where it was used. Many were shocked to hear their neighborhoods were being targeted, and grassroots complaints began to grow.
In 2018, a lawsuit by groups including the FNV union federation turned SyRI into a test case for limits to algorithmic government, watched by privacy experts around the globe. The case won support from the United Nations’ special rapporteur for human rights, Philip Alston, who filed an amicus brief saying SyRI posed “significant potential threats to human rights, in particular for the poorest in society.”
On Wednesday, the Hague district court agreed with that assessment, saying that it was legitimate for the government to use technology to address fraud, but that SyRI was too invasive. By collating swaths of data on entire neighborhoods, the court said, SyRI contravened the right to a private life guaranteed under European Human Rights Law.
The court’s decision also said the program didn’t fit with principles of transparency and minimizing data collection laid out in the EU’s sweeping privacy law GDPR, which took effect in 2018. It warned there was a risk the system might discriminate, by connecting lower income or an immigrant background to a higher risk of fraud.
The Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs said in a statement it would study the ruling, but did not signal whether it would appeal.
Christiaan van Veen, director of the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project at New York University School of Law, says the ruling is relevant beyond south Rotterdam. “Because of its use of international human rights language and norms, this case will resonate beyond Dutch borders,” he says.
Van Veem says the SyRI case will be particularly influential in Europe, where it may influence how other courts and countries interpret EU human rights law and GDPR. “One of the main takeaways is that regulation matters and can actually change things,” he says.
The ruling against SyRI comes on the heels of other examples of European courts and regulators putting the brakes on algorithmic efforts to boost government efficiency or oversight.