Digital Dystopia: How Algorithms Punish the Poor

October 15, 2019

All around the world, from small-town Illinois in the US to Rochdale in England, from Perth, Australia, to Dumka in northern India, a revolution is under way in how governments treat the poor.

You can’t see it happening, and may have heard nothing about it. It’s being planned by engineers and coders behind closed doors, in secure government locations far from public view.

Only mathematicians and computer scientists fully understand the sea change, powered as it is by artificial intelligence (AI), predictive algorithms, risk modeling and biometrics. But if you are one of the millions of vulnerable people at the receiving end of the radical reshaping of welfare benefits, you know it is real and that its consequences can be serious – even deadly.

The Guardian has spent the past three months investigating how billions are being poured into AI innovations that are explosively recasting how low-income people interact with the state. Together, our reporters in the US, Britain, India and Australia have explored what amounts to the birth of the digital welfare state.

Their dispatches reveal how unemployment benefits, child support, housing and food subsidies and much more are being scrambled online. Vast sums are being spent by governments across the industrialized and developing worlds on automating poverty and in the process, turning the needs of vulnerable citizens into numbers, replacing the judgment of human caseworkers with the cold, bloodless decision-making of machines.

At its most forbidding, Guardian reporters paint a picture of a 21st-century Dickensian dystopia that is taking shape with breakneck speed. The American political scientist Virginia Eubanks has a phrase for it: “The digital poorhouse.”

Listen to governments, and you will hear big promises about how new technologies will transform poverty as a noble and benign enterprise. They will speed up benefits payments, increase efficiency and transparency, reduce waste, save money for taxpayers, eradicate human fallibility and prejudice, and ensure that limited resources reach those most in need. But so often, those pledges have fallen flat.

At a time when austerity dominates the political landscape, millions have had their benefits slashed or stopped by computer programs that operate in ways that few seem able to control or even comprehend. Mistakes have become endemic, with no obvious route for the victims of the errors to seek redress.

This week, the automation of poverty will be brought on to the world stage. Philip Alston, a human rights lawyer who acts as the UN’s watchdog on extreme poverty, will present to the UN general assembly in New York a groundbreaking report that sounds the alarm about the human rights implications of the rush to digitalize social protection.

Alston’s analysis is based partly on his official UN studies of poverty in the UK and US, and partly on submissions from governments, human rights organisations and experts from more than 34 countries. It is likely to provide the definitive snapshot of where the world lies now, and where it is going, addressing the harassment, targeting and punishment of those living in the rapidly expanding digital poorhouse.

Mistakes have become endemic, with no obvious route for the victims to seek redress

In Illinois, the Guardian has found that state and federal governments have joined forces to demand that welfare recipients repay “overpayments” stretching back in some cases 30 years. This system of “zombie debt”, weaponized through technology, is invoking fear and hardship among society’s most vulnerable.

As one recipient described it: “You owe what you have eaten.”

In the UK, we investigate the secure government site outside Newcastle where millions are being spent developing a new generation of welfare robots to replace humans. Private companies including a New York outfit led by the world’s first bot billionaire, are supercharging a process which has spawned a whole new jargon: “virtual workforce”, “augmented decision-making”, “robot process automation”.

The government is rushing forward with its digital mission despite the pain already being inflicted on millions of low-income Britons by the country’s “digital by default” agenda. Claimants spoke of the hunger, filth, fear and panic that they are enduring.

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