Impact of digital technologies on social protection and human rights

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The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is preparing a thematic report to the UN General Assembly on the human rights impacts, especially on those living in poverty, of the introduction of digital technologies in the implementation of national social protection systems. The report will be presented to the General Assembly in New York in October 2019.

To prepare for his report the Special Rapporteur invited written submissions. In particular, the Special Rapporteur has expressed an interest in specific case studies involving the introduction of digital technologies in national social protection systems.

Colleagues from across the third sector and from the SDGs network are invited to share their case studies and examples here. This page formed the basis of the SCVO submission to the UN Special Rapporteur. Please share any case studies and contributions by Monday the 9th of May 2019.

Internet access

In 2016 the UN declared access to broadband to be a basic right. Without internet access in the home individuals have limited access to public services, channels for civic and democratic participation, knowledge and information tools, opportunities for social engagement, the labour market, and learning opportunities. Despite this, many individuals and households in Scotland and the UK cannot afford the devices and connections needed to benefit from the advantages the internet offers.

Home internet access varies considerably by household income. In 2016, 63% of households in Scotland with an income of £15,000 or less had home internet access rising to 98% in households with incomes over £40,000 (Scottish Household Survey, 2016). Additionally, only 65% of social housing tenants have home internet access, compared to 88% of home owners or private rented tenants. Older people, those with disabilities, and those in social housing or on low incomes are all more likely to be digitally excluded.

New technology in the welfare system

The UK and Scottish Government are increasingly moving services online. The Department for Work and Pensions, for example, planned for 80% of Universal Credit applications to be completed online by 2017 as part of a transition towards digital only services.

The ability to make and maintain claims online is central to Universal Credit. Individuals with limited access to online facilities or who find new technology challenging are at a significant disadvantage. UC can also provide help with housing costs and a landlord portal is being distributed to social landlords. Evidence suggests that the current DWP systems are not adequately developed. In particular, there is no alignment between deductions from UC and housing costs. This can lead to arrears and threaten tenancy sustainment.

The digitalisation of public services can simplify and integrate services. However, the people most likely to be supported by public services are also those most likely to be digitally excluded. Online public services must be accessible to all. The varied needs of public services users must be considered with supported by initiatives to ensure that everyone can use and access digital services. Equal access to digital services is essential to reducing inequalities, poverty, meeting the SDGs and fulfilling rights.

Case study Instructions

Colleagues from across the third sector are invited to share specific case studies involving the introduction of digital technologies in national social social systems here. Please consider some of the following :

  • In which part of the social protection system were digital technologies introduced;
  • What kind of digital technologies were introduced;
  • What were the stated objective(s) cited by politicians and government when introducing those technologies, and how did these reflect the broader political context;
  • Were any international organizations involved in the domestic debate about the introduction of digital technologies in the national social protection system;
  • Was there a specific legal basis for the introduction of these digital technologies in the social protection system;
  • Whether any analysis was undertaken by the government, legislative branch or other state institutions of the implications of the introduction of these technologies in the social protection system from the perspective of existing legal frameworks;
  • The extent to which governments relied on the private sector for the design, building and operation of these technologies in the social protection system;
  • The costs involved in the design, building and operation of these technologies in the social protection system;
  • The expected and actual cost-savings realized through the use of these digital technologies in the social protection system;

Case Studies - UK

Case Studies - Scotland

The introduction of digital technologies in UK and Scottish social security systems and human rights concerns

Lessons for the future introductions of digital technologies


The causes of poverty are diverse and multifaceted. However, currently in both the UK and Scotland unequal access to the internet and digital devices... undermine rights and economic security. A co-ordinated vision to tackle poverty and inequality, realise rights and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is urgently needed. Central to this vision is a truly rights-based social security system in both Scotland and the UK, initiatives to address the digital divide, and an understanding of the impact that digital technologies within both Scottish and the UK social security systems can have on people and communities and their rights.

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