Racist Technology in Action: Flagged as risky simply for requesting social assistance in Veenendaal, The Netherlands

This collaborative investigative effort by Spotlight Bureau, Lighthouse Reports and Follow the Money, dives into the story of a Moroccan-Dutch family in Veenendaal which was targeted for fraud by the Dutch government.

The municipality, benefit agencies (UWV and SVB), the police and the Labour Inspectorate (and previously, the Tax and Customs Administration) – working under the banner of LSI (National Steering Group Intervention Teams) – use risk profiling to look for addresses where suspected fraud or other abuses may be taking place. The project’s aim is to vet poorer neighbourhoods to detect fraud and other abuses with the goal of “improving liveability”. They do this by exchanging data on citizens, and construct risk profiles to identify “surprise addresses”, and proceed to make home visits to these addresses.

Fatima (not her real name) applied for social assistance and benefits as she was starting a rehabilitation programme related to multiple sclerosis, but the authorities threw her off welfare. She, and her family, are among the many who have been investigated after being flagged by an algorithm.

Almost any indicator can lead to suspicion: from siblings living together, to large households, or high or low water consumption. The Veenendaal project involved more than 20 of these types of risk indicators. Fatima’s address was flagged because she lived with an adult sibling, deemed as a “risk signal”. The municipality, based on the water consumption habits of Fatima and her family, along with receipts of her PIN payments, alleged that she does not live with her sister, but with her parents. Thus, rejected her benefit application on the basis of her having provided the wrong information.

Several months later, investigators continued their invasive home visits, and other forms of surveillance, not only to Fatima, but also to the addresses of Fatima’s family, who were also flagged. Two months after they rejected her benefits application, they continued to surveil not only Fatima, but three of her other family members, showing up at their doors for reasons such as a general “spot check” or for “fire safety”. Unknown to Fatima’s family members, their homes had been assigned by authorities as “suspicious addresses”.

As Fatima articulates, four years after the incident:

I told my story there [at the welfare intake interview] and not much later a notification goes out because my relatives have non-Dutch names. I don’t like pulling the racism card, but I can’t make anything else out of this. There have been such weird states of affairs. It really gives me a sense of injustice.

This story of Fatima and her family in Veenendaal illustrates how citizens’ contact with the government in the context of LSI projects can end up in being flagged and assessed as a potential risk, and how a perceived deviation from the norm can lead to fraud investigations, even if there are no actual indications of fraud.

See: Verdacht omdat je op een ‘verwonderadres’ woont: ‘Ze bleven aandringen dat ik open moest doen’ at Follow the Money.

Image from the original Follow the Money article.

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