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SyRI- an identification mechanism

Topics Covered: Cyber security related issues.

SyRI- an identification mechanism

What to study?

For Prelims: Key features.

For Mains: Significance of Dutch ruling, need for and implications.

Context: In a first anywhere in the world, a court in the Netherlands recently stopped SyRI- a digital identification scheme for reasons of exclusion.

Implications worldwide:

This has a context for similar artificial intelligence systems worldwide, especially at a time when identity, citizenship and privacy are pertinent questions in India.

Firstly, what was the scheme SyRI all about?

SyRI (System Risk Indicator) was developed by Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs developed in 2014 to weed out those who are most likely to commit fraud and receive government benefits.

It allowed government agencies to share 17 categories of data about welfare recipients such as taxes, land registries, employment records, and vehicle registrations with a private company.

  1. The company, called “The Intelligence Agency”, used an algorithm to analyse data for four cities and calculate risk scores. The selective rollout was conducted in low-income and immigrant neighborhoods, which have a higher number of beneficiaries.
  2. Elevated risk scores were sent to relevant government arms, which stores these on government databases for a maximum of two years. The government, in that time period, could open an investigation on the targeted person.

Why the Court ruled against it?

A Dutch district court ruled against this scheme because of data privacy and human rights concerns.

The court said using new technology to control fraud was acceptable, it held SyRI was too invasive and violative of the privacy guarantees given by European Human Rights Law as well as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Legal criticism had mounted on this case of algorithmic governance, alleging that the algorithm would begin associating poverty and immigrant statuses with fraud risk.

The court found that opaque algorithmic decision-making puts citizens at a disadvantage to challenge the resulting risk scores.

Government’s defence:

The Dutch government defended the programme in court, saying it prevented abuse and acted as only a starting point for further investigation instead of a final determination. The government also refused to disclose all information about how the system makes its decisions, stating that it would allow gaming of the system.

How relevant is this for India?

Similar to the Supreme Court’s Aadhaar judgment setting limits on the ID’s usage, the Hague Court attempted to balance social interest with personal privacy.

However, the Aadhaar judgment was not regarding algorithmic decision-making; it was about data collection.

The ruling is an example of how a data protection regulation can be used against government surveillance. The court ruled that SyRI was violative of principles of transparency and data minimisation laid out in their General Data Protection Regulation.

Sources: Indian Express.