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Bring Human Rights Home: A Story from the Netherlands

31 May 2021

Neighbourhood unites to stop invasive surveillance system

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. – Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12

They were worried, confused and angry. Why weren’t they told? What did this mean? Community coordinator Cor de Geus watched from the back of the room, as fellow residents expressed their deep frustration. Labour union representatives were explaining that hundreds of people in the neighbourhood had been screened by the government, without anyone knowing.

In 2014, the Dutch Government developed a digital surveillance system named SyRI, to predict social security fraud. It collected data from citizens, such as their water usage and electricity bills, and matched these with people who had committed fraud before. Through algorisms it created ‘risk profiles’, selecting citizens for a digital screening. Others would get visits at their houses, without any prior notice.

Taking the government to court
During the meeting, Cor knew he had to help stop this, to protect his neighbourhood. Apart from a severe invasion of privacy, SyRI was inherently discriminatory, as it targeted lower-income communities like his. Worse still, it could increase the likelihood of people with lower incomes and migrant backgrounds being unfairly criminalised.

The rights’ violation was clear as day. A coalition formed between local residents, public human rights lawyers and the national trade union – and together they decided to take the Dutch Government to court.

Soon their case gained nationwide attention. Cor spoke up in the media regularly, helping to represent the targeted neighbourhoods. The mayor of Rotterdam ended the use of SyRi in his city. But the coalition wanted to stop the system altogether.

A sigh of relief
Eventually, in February 2020, the court judged that the system was in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. Preventing fraud did not justify the violation of privacy of people in their own homes. The court added that SyRI posed a serious risk of discrimination based on social-economic status or ethnic background. Everybody cheered at this result, and Merel Hendrixx, one of the public lawyers of the coalition, sighed with relief. She had been cautiously optimistic, but didn’t expect the judges to agree on every single point.

The use of SyRI is no longer allowed, and has set an important legal precedent in The Netherlands. However, similar, predictive algorithms are still used in at least twenty-five councils around the country today. The SyRI coalition is keeping a close eye on the developments. If needed, they are ready to take action again.

Watch the story here.

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