All Projects

Technology has dramatically transformed the world we live in. It is increasingly difficult to remember human existence before digital technologies and digital information permeated almost every aspect of life. Digitalization has radically changed government, business, science, as well as many other aspects of human interaction. But we are also far removed from the early days of the internet and personal computer boom and that period’s optimism about our digital future; a time when Nicholas Negroponte wrote in Being Digital that “[l]ike a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

 

Today’s digital reality is mixed, and we are not only aware of the promises of new technologies, but also of the ability of these technologies to cause harm and undermine our human rights. Technology-driven automation may lead to displacement of human workers, governments may use an immense data stream to spy on us and control our behavior, and social media can be a marketplace for hate. How do we ensure that technology and data are used to fulfill our rights, like our human rights to health, to education, and to social security, rather than to violate those rights? As governments incorporate digital technologies, how do we ensure that no one is excluded? These are some of the key questions that guide the Center’s work on digital technologies and human rights.

 

The Digital Welfare State

Emerging from groundbreaking work undertaken on the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, CHRGJ launched the “Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project” in 2019 to investigate systems of social protection and assistance in countries around the world that are increasingly driven by digital data and technologies. Such data and technologies are commonly used to automate, predict, identify, surveil, detect, target and punish. The project has sought to further theoretical and practical understandings of these phenomena, from the perspective of international human rights law, to trigger a global debate on the human rights implications of the rise of digital welfare states, and to form a coalition and network of relevant organizations and individuals interested in addressing the positive and negative human rights implications of digital welfare states. This focus on research, action and education and community-building remains the essence of our work on new technologies and human rights.

 

But the human rights implications of governments’ wholesale embrace of digital technologies spread far beyond the “digital welfare state.” Around the world, governments are busily implementing “digital transformation” strategies, using a buzzword much preferred by governments and those advising them, and effecting radical transformations within the interactions between governments and individuals. These “digital transformation” initiatives affect all parts of the state, not merely the delivery of welfare and social protection services. From the introduction of digital ID systems in India or Kenya that act as “gateways” to accessing social and other human rights, to “digital-by-default” welfare benefits in the United Kingdom, digital government is rapidly becoming omnipresent.

 

Our Initiatives

We are exploring these broader implications of digital transformation in the state on human rights in several strands of our work. This includes our work on the Everyone Counts! initiative, through which we undertake in-depth research on digital ID, social exclusion, and human rights violations, targeted advocacy and network building. The wider implications of the Digital Leviathan for human rights are also investigated through Transformer States: A Series on Digital Government and Human Rights. This is a series of virtual in-depth interviews with practitioners and academics working at the cutting edge of research and advocacy on digital government, as well as accompanying blog posts about digital government and human rights. This series of interviews and blogs aims to explore digital transformation and its impact on the lives and rights of individuals. Finally, we aim to bring our research and that of our partners and peers to the attention of international organizations, especially global and regional human rights accountability mechanisms, through our United Against Digital Dystopia advocacy.

 

If you wish to be added to our mailing list about our work and news on the digital state and human rights, please sign up here!

28/12/2022

Director of the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project, Christiaan van Veen, Bids Farewell

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17/06/2022

Press Release: The World Bank and co. may be paving a ‘Digital Road to Hell’ with support for dangerous digital ID

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08/06/2021

Press Release: ‘Chased Away and Left to Die’: New human rights report finds that Uganda’s national digital ID system leads to mass exclusion

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17/01/2022

Press release: U.S. government must adopt moratorium on mandatory use of biometric technologies in critical sectors, look to evidence abroad, urge human rights experts

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Blog

The Aadhaar Mirage: A Second Look at the World Bank’s “Model” for Digital ID Systems

Drawing inspiration from India’s Aadhaar system, the World Bank is promoting a dangerous digital ID model in the name of providing “a legal identity for all.” But rather than providing a model, Aadhaar is merely a mirage—an illusion of inclusiveness, accuracy, and universal identity.

Jaap van der Straaten
Blog

Sorting in Place of Solutions for Homeless Populations: How Federal Directives Prioritize Data Over Services

National data collection and service prioritization were supposed to make homeless services more equitable and efficient. Instead, they have created more risks and bureaucratic burdens for homeless individuals and homeless service organizations.

Batya Kemper
Blog

Risk Scoring Children in Chile

On March 30, 2022, Christiaan van Veen and I hosted the eleventh event in our “Transformer States” interview series on digital government and human rights. In conversation with human rights expert and activist Paz Peña, we examined the implications of Chile’s “Childhood Alert System,” an “early warning” mechanism which assigns risk scores to children based on their calculated probability of facing various harms. This blog picks up on the themes of the conversation. The video recording and additional readings can be found below.

Victoria Adelmant
Blog

“Killing two birds with one stone?” The Cashless COVID Welfare Payments Aimed at Boosting Consumption

In launching its COVID-19 relief payments scheme, the South Korean government had two goals: providing a safety net for its citizens and boosting consumption for the economy. It therefore provided cashless payments, issuing credit card points rather than cash. However, this had serious implications for the vulnerable.

Bo Eun Kwon
Blog

Experimental automation in the UK immigration system

The UK government is experimenting with automated immigration systems. The promised benefits of automation are inevitably attractive, but these experiments routinely expose people—including some of the most vulnerable—to unacceptable risks of harm.

Joe Tomlinson and Jack Maxwell
Blog

Chosen by a Secret Algorithm: Colombia’s top-down pandemic payments

The Colombian government was applauded for delivering payments to 2.9 million people in just 2 weeks during the pandemic, thanks to a big-data-driven approach. But this new approach represents a fundamental change in social policy which shifts away from political participation and from a notion of rights.

María Beatriz Jiménez
Blog

Pilots, Pushbacks, and the Panopticon: Digital Technologies at the EU’s Borders

The European Union is increasingly introducing digital technologies into its border control operations. But conversations about these emerging “digital borders” are often silent about the significant harms experienced by those subjected to these technologies, their experimental nature, and their discriminatory impacts.

Victoria Adelmant
Blog

Social rights disrupted: how should human rights organizations adapt to digital government?

As the digitalization of government is accelerating worldwide, human rights organizations who have not historically engaged with questions surrounding digital technologies are beginning to grapple with these issues. This challenges these organizations to adapt both their substantive focus and working methods while remaining true to their values and ideals.

Victoria Adelmant
Blog

A GPS Tracker on Every “Boda Boda”: A Tale of Mass Surveillance in Uganda

The Ugandan government recently announced that GPS trackers would be placed on every vehicle in the country. This is just the latest example of the proliferation of technology-driven mass surveillance, spurred by a national security agenda and the desire to suppress political opposition.

Dorothy Mukasa
Blog

“Leapfrogging” to Digital Financial Inclusion through “Moonshot” Initiatives

The notion that new technological solutions can overcome entrenched exclusion from banking services and fair credit is quickly gaining widespread acceptance. But tech-based “fixes” often funnel low-income groups into separate, inferior systems and create new tech-driven divisions.

Victoria Adelmant
Commentary

The fatal flaw in Uganda’s emergency relief (African Arguments)

Dorothy Mukasa, Salima Namusobya, and Christiaan van Veen
Blog

False Promises and Multiple Exclusion: Summary of Our RightsCon Event on Uganda’s National Digital ID System

Despite its promotion as a tool for social inclusion and development, Uganda’s National Digital ID System is motivated primarily by national security concerns. As a result, the ID system has generated both direct and indirect exclusion, particularly affecting women and older persons.

Madeleine Matsui
Blog

Chased Away and Left to Die: New Report by CHRGJ and Ugandan partners documents mass exclusion from Uganda’s digital ID system and blames national security “obsession”

National digital ID systems are often presented as leading to social inclusion, but our report on Ndaga Muntu, Uganda’s digital ID system, shows a different reality of mass exclusion and a focus on national security.

Christiaan van Veen and Katelyn Cioffi
Blog

I don’t see you, but you see me: asymmetric visibility in Brazil’s Bolsa Família Program

Brazil’s Bolsa Família Program, the world’s largest conditional cash transfer program, is indicative of broader shifts in data-driven social security. While its beneficiaries are becoming “transparent” as their data is made available, the way the State uses beneficiaries’ data is increasingly opaque.

Nathalie Fragoso and Mariana Valente
Blog

Social Credit in China: Looking Beyond the “Black Mirror” Nightmare

The Chinese government’s Social Credit program has received much attention from Western media and academics, but misrepresentations have led to confusion over what it truly entails. Such mischaracterizations unhelpfully distract from the dangers and impacts of the realities of Social Credit.

Victoria Adelmant
Blog

Everyone Counts! Ensuring that the human rights of all are respected in digital ID systems

The Everyone Counts! initiative was launched in the fall of 2020 with a firm commitment to a simple principle: the digital transformation of the state can only qualify as a success if everyone’s human rights are respected. Nowhere is this more urgent than in the context of so-called digital ID systems.

Christiaan van Veen and Katelyn Cioffi
Blog

Marketizing the digital state: the failure of the ‘Verify’ model in the United Kingdom

Verify, the UK government’s digital identity program, sought to construct a market for identity verification in which companies would compete. But the assumption that companies should be positioned between government and individuals who are trying to access services has gone unquestioned.

Victoria Adelmant
Blog

Fearing the future without romanticizing the past: the role for international human rights law(yers) in the digital welfare state to be

Universal Credit is one of the foremost examples of a digital welfare system and the UK’s approach to digital government is widely copied. What can we learn from this case study for the future of international human rights law in the digital welfare state?

Christiaan van Veen
Blog

Locked In! How the South African Welfare State Came to Rely on a Digital Monopolist

The South African Social Security Agency provides “social grants” to 18 million citizens. In using a single private company with its own biometric payment system to deliver grants, the state became dependent on a monopolist and exposed recipients to debt and financial exploitation.

Christiaan van Veen
Blog

Putting Profit Before Welfare: A Closer Look at India’s Digital Identification System

Aadhaar is the largest national biometric digital identification program in the world, with over 1.2 billion registered users. While the poor have been used as a “marketing strategy” for this program, the “real agenda” is the pursuit of private profit.

Holly Ritson
Blog

On the Frontlines of the Digital Welfare State: Musings from Australia

Welfare beneficiaries are in danger of losing their payments to “glitches” or because they lack internet access. So why is digitization still seen as the shiny panacea to poverty?

Nijole Naujokas