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Dutch risk profiling system SyRI banned following court decision

Wednesday, 05 February 2020

Today, the district court of The Hague ruled on the use of the algorithm-based system SyRI (System Risk Indication) by the Dutch government. The judges decided that the government, in trying to detect social services fraud, has to stop profiling citizens on the basis of large scale data analysis. As a result, people in the Netherlands are no longer 'suspected from the very start’ ("bij voorbaat verdacht").

The case against the Dutch government was brought by a coalition of NGOs, consisting of the Dutch Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights (Platform Bescherming Burgerrechten), the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights (Nederlands Juristen Comité voor de Mensenrechten, NJCM), Privacy First, the KDVP Foundation (privacy in mental healthcare), Dutch trade union FNV, the National Clients Council (LCR) and authors Tommy Wieringa and Maxim Februari.

The court concludes that SyRI is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. SyRI impinges disproportionately on the private life of citizens. This concerns not only those that SyRI has flagged as an 'increased risk', but everyone whose data are analysed by the system. According to the court, SyRI is non-transparent and therefore cannot be scrutinized. Citizens can neither anticipate the intrusion into their private life, nor can they guard themselves against it.

Moreover, the court draws attention to the actual risk of discrimination and stigmatization on the grounds of socio-economic status and possibly migration background, of citizens in disadvantaged urban areas where SyRI is being deployed. There is a risk – which cannot be examined – that SyRI operates on the basis of prejudices. The attorneys of the claimant parties, Mr. Ekker and Mr. Linders, had this to say: "The court confirms that the large scale linking of personal data is in violation of EU law, Dutch law and fundamental human rights, including the protection of privacy. Therefore, this ruling is also important for other European countries and on a wider international level."

From now on, as long as there is no well-founded suspicion, personal data from different sources may no longer be combined.

Line in the sand

"This ruling is an important line in the sand against the unbridled collection of data and risk profiling. The court puts a clear stop to the massive surveillance that innocent citizens have been under. SyRI and similar systems should be abolished immediately", states Privacy First director Vincent Böhre.

"Today we have been proved right on all fundamental aspects. This is a well-timed victory for the legal protection of all citizens in the Netherlands", says Tijmen Wisman of the Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights.

Another plaintiff in the case, trade union FNV, equally rejects SyRI on principal grounds. "We are delighted that the court has now definitively cancelled SyRI", comments Kitty Jong, vice chair of FNV.

Turning point

The parties hope that the ruling will herald a turning point in the way in which the government deals with the data of citizens. They believe this viewpoint is endorsed by the considerations of the court: these apply not only to SyRI, but also to similar practices. Many municipalities in the Netherlands have their own data linking systems which profile citizens for all sorts of policy purposes. When it comes to combining data, a legislative proposal that would be greater in scope than SyRI and would enable lumping together the databases of private parties and those of public authorities, was all but unthinkable. The decision by the Hague district court, however, clamps down on these Big Data practices. According to the claimant parties, it is therefore of crucial importance that the SyRI ruling will affect both current as well as future political policies.

Public debate

The case against SyRI serves both a legal and a social goal. With this ruling, both goals are reached. Merel Hendrickx of PILP-NJCM: "Apart from stopping SyRI, we also aimed at initiating a public debate about the way the government deals with citizens in a society undergoing digitisation. This ruling shows how important it is to have that discussion."

Although SyRI was adopted in 2014 without any fuss, the discussion about its legality intensified after the lawsuit was announced. At the start of 2019, the use of SyRI in two Rotterdam neighbourhoods led to protests among inhabitants and a discussion in the municipal council. Soon after, the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, pulled the plug on the SyRI program because of doubts over its legal basis. In June 2019, Dutch newspaper Volkskrant revealed that SyRI had not detected a single fraudster since its inception. In October 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, wrote a critical letter to the district court of The Hague expressing serious doubts over the legality of SyRI. Late November 2019, SyRI won a Big Brother Award.

The coalition of parties was represented in court by Anton Ekker (Ekker Advocatuur) and Douwe Linders (SOLV Attorneys). The proceedings were coordinated by the Public Interest Litigation Project (PILP) of the NJCM.

The full ruling of the court can be found HERE (official translation in English).