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ICO allays fears over algorithms in benefits claims


Mark Say Managing Editor

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There is no evidence of algorithms currently being used in a way that causes harm to claimants in the welfare system, according to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Its executive director (regulatory futures and innovation) Stephen Bonner has expressed the view in a blogpost following an inquiry into the issue, along with a trio of recommendations to preserve public trust.

The inquiry involved consultation with a sample of 11 councils, technology suppliers and the Department for Work and Pensions.

Bonner said it had not found any evidence of harms or financial detriment due to the use of algorithms, and that the ICO understood there was “meaningful human involvement” before any final decision on benefit entitlements were made.

A crucial factor was that data was processed with simple algorithms to reduce the administrative workload, rather through machine learning or AI to support decision making.

Compliance and trust

He said, however, that there are steps councils should take to comply with data protection laws and preserve trust when using algorithms or AI.

First is to take a “data protection by design and default approach”, with a clear understanding of why personal data is needed and erase it when no longer required. This should be supported by reviews to keep it up to date.

Second is to be transparent with people about how their data is being used; and third to identify the risk to people’s privacy through data protection impact assessments.

“The potential benefits of AI are plain to see,” Bonner said. “It can streamline processes, reduce costs, improve services and increase staff power.

“Yet the economic and societal benefits of these innovations are only possible by maintaining the trust of the public. It is important that where local authorities use AI, it is employed in a way that is fair, in accordance with the law, and repays the trust that the public put in them when they hand their data over.”

He added that the inquiry has increased the ICO’s understanding of the use of AI in the sector and will be fed into its further work.

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