Court hearing in lawsuit against System Risk Indication (SyRI)

Monday, 21 October 2019

Fundamental lawsuit against mass risk profiling of unsuspected citizens

On Tuesday October 29 at 9:30 am in the district court of The Hague the court hearing will take place in the main proceedings of a broad coalition of Dutch civil society organizations against Systeem Risico Indicatie (System Risk Indication - SyRI). SyRI uses secret algorithms to screen entire residential areas to profile citizens on the risk of fraud with social services. According to the coalition of plaintiffs, this system poses a threat to the rule of law and SyRI must be declared unlawful.

The group of plaintiffs, consisting of the Dutch Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights, the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights (NJCM), the Privacy First Foundation, the KDVP Foundation and the National Client Council (LCR), in March 2018 sued the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs. Authors Tommy Wieringa and Maxim Februari, who previously spoke very critically about SyRI, joined the proceedings in their personal capacity. In July 2018, Dutch labour union FNV also joined the coalition.

The parties are represented by Anton Ekker (Ekker Advocatuur) and Douwe Linders (SOLV Attorneys). The case is coordinated by the Public Interest Litigation Project (PILP) of the NJCM.

Trawl method on unsuspected citizens

SyRI links the personal data of citizens from various government databases on a large scale. These centrally collected data are subsequently analyzed by secret algorithms. This should show whether citizens pose a risk of being guilty of one of the many forms of fraud and violations that the system covers. If the analysis of SyRI leads to a risk notification, then the citizen in question will be included in the so-called Risk Notices Register (Register Risicomeldingen), which can be accessed by government authorities.

SyRI uses this trawl method to screen all residents of a neighborhood or area. For this, the system uses almost all data that government authorities store about citizens. It comprises 17 data categories, which together provide a very intrusive picture of someone's private life. SyRI currently covers the databases of the Dutch Tax Authorities, Inspectorate of Social Affairs, Employment Office, Social Security Bank, municipalities and the Immigration Service. According to the Dutch Council of State (Raad van State), which gave a negative opinion on the SyRI bill, it was hard to imagine any data that did not fall within the scope of the system. Former chairman Kohnstamm of the Dutch Data Protection Authority, which also issued a negative opinion on the system, called the adoption of the SyRI legislation "dramatic" at the time.

Threat to the rule of law

According to the claimants, SyRI is a black box with major risks for the democratic rule of law. It is completely unclear to any citizen, who can be screened by SyRI without cause, what data are used for this, which analysis is carried out with it and what makes him or her a 'risk'. Moreover, due to the secret operation of SyRI, citizens are also unable to refute an incorrect risk indication. The use of SyRI makes the legal process and the associated procedures intransparent.

SyRI thereby undermines the relationship of trust between the government and its citizens; these citizens are in fact suspected in advance. Virtually all information that they share with the government, often to be eligible for basic services, can be used against them secretly without any suspicion.

The plaintiffs in this lawsuit are not opposed to the government combating fraud. They just think that this should be done on the basis of a concrete suspicion. There should be no trawl searches in the private life of unsuspected Dutch citizens to look for possible fraud risks. According to the claimants, this disproportionate method does more harm than good. There are better and less radical forms of fraud prevention than SyRI.

Not one fraudster detected yet

The total of five SyRI investigations that have been announced since the system's legal introduction have by now turned tens of thousands of citizens inside out, but have not yet detected one fraudster. This was revealed at the end of June 2019 by Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, which managed to get hold of evaluations of SyRI investigations. The investigations failed because the analyses were incorrect, due to lack of capacity and time at the implementing bodies, but also because there is disagreement within the government about SyRI.

For example, mayor Aboutaleb of Rotterdam pulled the plug from the SyRI investigation in two neighborhoods in Rotterdam South last summer, because the Ministry, unlike the municipality, also wanted to use police and healthcare data in the investigation. The deployment of SyRI also led to protest among the neighborhood's residents, who clearly showed that they felt insulted and unfairly treated.

UN expresses concern about SyRI

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston wrote to the court earlier this month about his concerns about SyRI and urged the judges to thoroughly assess the case. According to the rapporteur, several fundamental rights are at stake. SyRI is described in his letter as a digital equivalent of a social detective who visits every household in an area without permission and searches for fraudulent cases; in the analogue world such a massive manhunt would immediately lead to great resistance, but with a digital instrument such as SyRI, it is wrongly claimed that 'ignorance is bliss'.

Practical information

The court hearing is open to the public and will take place on Tuesday October 29th from 9.30 am in the Palace of Justice, Prins Clauslaan 60 in The Hague. Case number: C/09/550982 HA ZA 18/388 (Nederlands Juristen Comité c.s./Staat).

Source: campaign website Bijvoorbaatverdacht.nl.

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