Digital ID systems and Algorithmic Governance

  • IASbaba
  • February 15, 2020
  • 0
UPSC Articles
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Topic: General Studies 2:

  • Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation. 

  • Awareness in the fields of IT

Digital ID systems and Algorithmic Governance


For the first time in world, court in the Netherlands stopped a digital identification scheme for reasons of exclusion. This is of significance especially at a time when identity, citizenship and privacy are pertinent questions in India & worldwide

What was the scheme?

  • SyRI (System Risk Indicator) was developed by The Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs in 2014 to weed out those who are most likely to commit fraud and receive government benefits
  • Legislation passed by Dutch Parliament 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.
  • The company, called “The Intelligence Agency”, used an algorithm to analyse data for four cities and calculate risk scores. 
  • 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.

What were the arguments in court?

  • Civil society groups and NGOs launched a legal attack on this case of algorithmic governance
  • The allegation was that the algorithm would begin associating poverty and immigrant statuses with fraud risk.
  • 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.
  • The court found that opaque algorithmic decision-making puts citizens at a disadvantage to challenge the resulting risk scores.

Judgement of the Court

  • The court ruled that SyRI was violative of principles of transparency and data minimisation laid out in their General Data Protection Regulation.
  • While the Hague district court found using new technology to control fraud was acceptable, it held SyRI was too invasive and violative of the privacy guarantees

Significance of the Judgement

  • This decision sets a strong legal precedent for other courts to follow, especially when Digital ID systems are being rolled out at a fast pace in places like Kenya, Philippines, Nigeria, Mexico, and more
  • This is one of the first times a court anywhere has stopped the use of digital technologies by welfare authorities on human rights grounds

Impact on 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.
  • India’s pending data protection regulation, being analysed by a Joint Select Committee in Parliament, could learn from the judgement about the need to regulate governments use of digital technologies for welfare activities.


The ruling demonstrates that parliaments ought to look very closely at the ways in which governments use technology in the social security system, to protect the rights of their citizens.

Did You know?

  • Due to General Data Protection Regulation, European tech initiatives have been stalled, including a facial recognition system on students in Sweden and France.
  • However, attempts to ban facial recognition in cities such as San Francisco, USA have not had the same success as in Europe due to loopholes in US regulations
  • A system somewhat paralleling the Dutch SyRI system was a risk-scoring software being used by US court systems to establish bail times. The US Supreme Court declined to hear a related case in 2017.

Connecting the dots!

  • Justice B.N.Srikrishna Committee Report
  • Facial recognition used on large scale by China on Uyghurs
  • Algorithmic Governance 

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