Automated benefit decisions: Councils are already using machines to persecute benefit claimants

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Days after we discovered the DWP is developing Artificial Intelligence to decide whether vulnerable claimants receive benefits – possibly whether they get to live or die – it turns out local councils have been buying similar systems from commercial businesses.

And there’s a serious problem: they don’t work.

According to The Guardian, companies including the US credit-rating businesses Experian and TransUnion, as well as the outsourcing specialist Capita and Palantir, a data-mining firm co-founded by the Trump-supporting billionaire Peter Thiel, are selling machine-learning packages to local authorities that are under pressure to save money.

It seems 140 of 408 councils – more than one-third – have invested in these systems, at great cost. One must presume they expect the savings to come over time.

They provide automated guidance on benefit claims, prevent child abuse and allocate school places.

But concerns have been raised about privacy and data security, the ability of council officials to understand how some of the systems work, and the difficulty for citizens in challenging automated decisions.

North Tyneside council has dropped TransUnion, after payments were wrongly delayed by the computer’s “predictive analytics”.

It automatically processed data about claimants for housing and council tax benefit to determine the likelihood it was fraudulent – “risk based verification”. But benefit claims were wrongly delayed.

Hackney council in east London has dropped Xantura, another company, from a project to predict child abuse and intervene before it happens, saying it did not deliver the expected benefits.

And Sunderland city council has not renewed a £4.5m data analytics contract for an “intelligence hub” provided by Palantir.

These experiences are leading to increasing concern that the use of algorithms – computerised instructions intended to solve problems (or in this case make decisions) is leaving vulnerable people at the whim of automated decisions they do not understand and therefore cannot challenge.

Local authority bosses do not understand how these systems work either, it seems.

And so the injustices creep into the system.

The DWP has told parliament it gathers data from private credit reference agencies, the police, the Valuation Office Agency, the Land Registry and the National Fraud Initiative, which gather information from public and private bodies – but is now declining to update the list, claiming it would “compromise the usefulness of that data”.

So, as public participation charity Involve claims, there is a risk to citizens’ privacy and data security, and the potential for seriously harmful wrong decisions.

Suppose someone falls foul of a wrong decision on their Housing Benefit claim, made by a computer at their local authority.

Wouldn’t the computer at the DWP pick it up and use it against the same claimant in order to invalidate a claim for – say – Employment and Support Allowance?

If so, these machines could put innocent people deeply out-of-pocket – with no explanation and no accountability.

It is a program that can have only one result – disaster. Somebody will die – if they haven’t already.

Source: One in three councils using algorithms to make welfare decisions | Society | The Guardian

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