Digital technology, social protection and human rights: Report

October 2019
Issued by:
The Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty
To the General Assembly at its 74th session


The digital welfare state is either already a reality or emerging in many countries across the globe. In these States, systems of social protection and assistance are increasingly driven by digital data and technologies that are used to automate, predict, identify, surveil, detect, target and punish.

This report builds in part on reports by the Special Rapporteur on his visits to the United States of America in 2017 and the United Kingdom in 2018, in which attention was drawn to the increasing use of digital technologies in social protection systems.

The Special Rapporteur presented this thematic report to the General Assembly at its 74th session in October 2019.


In this report, the Special Rapporteur acknowledges the irresistible attractions for Governments to increase their reliance on digital technologies. He also highlights the grave risk of stumbling, zombie-like, into a digital welfare dystopia. He observes that big technology companies operate in an almost human rights-free zone, and that this is especially problematic when the private sector is taking a leading role in designing, constructing and even operating significant parts of the digital welfare state.

The report recommends that, instead of obsessing about fraud, cost savings, sanctions, and market-driven definitions of efficiency, the starting point should be on how welfare budgets could be transformed through technology to ensure a higher standard of living for the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Inputs received

In preparing the present report, the Special Rapporteur consulted representatives of various digital rights groups, leading scholars and other stakeholders, first in a meeting hosted by the Digital Freedom Fund in Berlin in February 2019, and then at a meeting sponsored by the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, United States, in April 2019.

The Special Rapporteur also invited all interested parties, including, but not limited to, NGOs, activists, academics and other individuals and organisations working on issues related to digital technologies, welfare and human rights, to provide input for the preparation of this report.