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Court hearing in case against System Risk Indication (SyRI)

Fundamental lawsuit against mass risk profiling of unsuspected citizens

On Tuesday 29 October at 9.30 am, the court hearing in the proceedings on the merits of a broad coalition of civil society organisations against the System Risk Indication (SyRI) will take place in the District Court of The Hague. SyRI uses secret algorithms to screen entire residential areas to profile citizens on the risk of defrauding social services. According to the coalition of plaintiffs, this system is a threat to the rule of law and SyRI should be declared unlawful.

The group of plaintiffs, consisting of the Civil Rights Platform Foundation, the Dutch Legal Committee for Human Rights (NJCM), Privacy First Foundation, KDVP Foundation and the National Clients' Council, sued the Ministry of Social Affairs in March 2018. Authors Tommy Wieringa and Maxim Februari, who had previously been highly critical of SyRI, joined the proceedings in a personal capacity. In July 2018, FNV also joined the coalition.

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

Dragnet method on unsuspected citizens

SyRI links citizens' personal data from government databases on a large scale. The centrally gathered data is then analysed with secret algorithms. This should reveal whether citizens are at risk of committing any of the many types of fraud and offences covered by the system. If SyRI's analysis results in a risk notification, a citizen is included in the so-called Risk Notification Register, which is accessible to government agencies.

Using this dragnet method, SyRI vets all residents of a neighbourhood or area. To do this, the system uses almost all data that governments hold on citizens. It involves 17 data categories, which together give a very penetrating and complete picture of a person's private life. Currently, SyRI covers the databases of the Tax Authority, the Inspectorate SZW, UWV, SVB, municipalities and IND. According to the Council of State, which gave a negative opinion on the SyRI bill, it was hard to think of any data that does not fall within the scope of the system. Former chairman Kohnstamm of the Personal Data Authority, which also gave a negative opinion on the system, mentioned the passage of the SyRI legislation at the time "dramatic".

Threat to the rule of law

SyRI, according to the plaintiffs, is a black box with major risks to the democratic rule of law. It is completely unclear to a citizen who may be vetted by SyRI without cause what data will be used for this purpose, what analyses will be carried out with it and what makes him or her a 'risk' or not. Moreover, due to SyRI's covert operation, citizens are also unable to refute an incorrect risk report. The judicial process and associated procedures become opaque with the deployment of SyRI.

SyRI thus undermines the relationship of trust between the government and its citizens; these citizens are effectively suspect in advance. Virtually all the information they share with the government, often to qualify for basic services, can be used against them covertly without suspicion or prior suspicion.

The parties to these proceedings are not against the government fighting fraud. They only believe this should be done on the basis of concrete suspicion. There should be no trawling of the private lives of unsuspected Dutch citizens to find possible risks of fraud. According to the plaintiffs, this disproportionate method does more harm than good. There are better and less intrusive forms of fraud prevention than SyRI.

Not one fraudster detected yet

The total of five SyRI investigations announced since its legal introduction have now turned tens of thousands of citizens inside out, but did not track down a single fraudster so far. This was revealed at the end of June 2019 unveiled by the Volkskrant, which managed to get its hands on evaluations of SyRI investigations. The investigations failed because the analyses were flawed, because of lack of capacity and time at implementing agencies, but also because of disagreements within the government about SyRI.

Rotterdam mayor Aboutaleb, for instance, pulled the plug on the SyRI investigation in two neighbourhoods in Rotterdam-Zuid 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 residents of the districts, who clearly expressed their feelings of being insulted and unfairly treated.

UN expresses concerns over SyRI

UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston wrote to the court earlier this month about his concerns regarding SyRI and urged the judges to assess the case thoroughly. According to the rapporteur, several fundamental rights are at stake. SyRI is used in the letter described as a digital equivalent of a social investigator visiting every household in an area without permission and searching them for fraudulent items; in the analogue world, such a massive manhunt would immediately lead to great resistance, but with a digital tool like SyRI, a 'what doesn't know doesn't matter' mentality is mistakenly adopted.

Practical information

The hearing is open to the public and will take place on Tuesday 29 October from 9.30am at the Palace of Justice, Prins Clauslaan 60 in The Hague. Privacy First cordially invites you to attend the hearing. Case number: C/09/550982 HA ZA 18/388 (Nederlands Juristen Comité c.s./Staat). Click HERE for directions.

Source: campaign website Side-by-side

Update 20 November 2019

the court ruling stands for now planned at 5 February 2020 at 10am. Our lawyers' pleading note can be found at HERE download (pdf).