How the Government Spies on Welfare Claimants

The UK government uses invasive data gathering techniques to try and prove that people claiming benefits are actually living lavish lifestyles.
​Illustration by Rebecca Hendin
Illustration: Rebecca Hendin

Social media monitoring, covert physical surveillance, and data gathering from airlines, PayPal accounts, and bingo clubs, are among the tactics that the UK government has been using to monitor welfare claimants.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which is responsible for the UK’s social security system and benefits support for some of the country’s most vulnerable, deploys excessive surveillance methods, according to a new report by Privacy International. Cracking down on benefit fraud has been a target of successive UK governments, despite it making up a tiny proportion of benefits administered.

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VICE World News spoke to Rachel Fletcher, a solicitor at the Manchester firm Slater Heelis who represents Ellen, a benefit claimant who has been subject to DWP surveillance. Ellen, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity, lives with a chronic illness. The surveillance was carried out after the DWP began to suspect she wasn’t entitled to disability support.

Undercover DWP investigators trailed Ellen and filmed her at a fundraising event – one which she was attending to raise money for a charity for her illness. “She couldn’t actually take part in the event because of her illness and she left in tears,” says Fletcher. “But the DWP doesn't show that, they just show her arriving.”

According to a 995-page, heavily reacted DWP employee handbook analysed by Privacy International, surveillance of benefit claimants is permitted as long as it remains “covert, but not intrusive”. But heavy-handed tactics suggest that the social security system has become the site of potentially illegal surveillance against those receiving welfare and disability payments.

Ellen had been receiving Personal Independence Payments (PIP), a benefit that’s awarded to help cover everyday costs like transport and assisted living for those with disabilities and long-term illnesses. In 2018, a few months after being awarded the benefit, she started a new health treatment that gave her intermittent relief – some days she could move around easily, and other days she wasn’t able to get out of bed. 

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Still, she contacted the DWP to let them know that her condition had changed, and was told that she didn’t have to worry about any changes in her PIP until her benefit reassessment date, which was scheduled to take place in several years’ time. A few months later, the Department called her in for an “Interview Under Caution” and accused her of faking her disability.

At the interview, the DWP presented data obtained from an airline and a social club that she attended. Fletcher, who attended the interview alongside Ellen, says that the evidence was meant to portray her as an affluent spender that had no need for disability assistance. “They start playing all the evidence they'd been gathering over a period of about six weeks [...] Evidence of her going about her daily life, unloading her car, leaving coffee shops and exercising.” All of it was meant to show that she was defrauding the benefit system.

“They looked at things like her flights and [said] that she'd upgraded her flights. But they didn't appreciate that the reason she upgraded was that she needed more legroom because of her illness,” says Fletcher. Ellen had been advised by her GP to stay active, but the DWP fraud investigators filmed her exercising and presented it to her at the interview as proof that she should have her benefit withdrawn and face criminal charges. 

They’d also approached her employer and other people that she knew to obtain information about her. “At this stage, they’re supposed to be just getting an account from you,” explains Fletcher. “And yet you turn up to an interview to find out they've already spoken to your associates and your employer, who may not have told you about it. It's embarrassing. You're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but people think there's no smoke without fire, so your reputation is tarnished. Even before you’re charged with an offence.” 

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According to the DWP’s employee handbook, benefit fraud cases are fed from the Department to journalists as part of a media strategy to increase visibility around these cases. “There is a procedure in place that says when you catch someone, you go and tell the tabloids,” explains Eva Blum-Dumontet, a senior researcher with Privacy International. Although details of the DWP’s coordination with media outlets is redacted, the systematic release of information about benefit fraud cases point to the Department’s role in perpetuating the myth of “benefit cheats” who take lavish vacations using taxpayer funds.

The Privacy International report suggests that this kind of DWP evidence-gathering may be in violation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), which dictates how the government can surveil and monitor UK residents. The DWP is only partially authorised to use investigation and data-gathering tactics, and is not legally permitted to use information obtained from those who know and have a relationship with the person under investigation – known as Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) – who essentially act as informants. The DWP handbook acknowledges the legal limits around CHIS, but also offers 8 pages of guidance explaining how to gather information from them. 

“Under RIPA, they’re not allowed to use Covert Human Intelligence Sources,” says Blum-Dumontet. “And yet the guide is full of: ‘Oh, you're not allowed to use this. But hey, if you have a Covert Human Intelligence Source that suddenly comes at you, here is how you should handle that.’ It's very cheeky.”

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Fletcher says that from her experience working with claimants, DWP investigations are aggressive and often disproportionately severe. “The police don’t often use those powers that early in an investigation – whereas the DWP will.” 

Many benefit cases Fletcher works on include instances of social media monitoring, which the DWP justifies on the grounds that the personal data they use is considered open source. “Just because you've got mobility issues doesn't mean you're not entitled to public life or a social life. They’ll print off photographs that you have on there [social media] and put them to you in an interview.” The tactic often has the effect of being intimidating and invasive for claimants being scrutinised by the DWP.

The investigations and breaches of privacy often take a heavy toll on claimants like Ellen. “She's quite frightened to leave the house,” says Fletcher. “She thinks that she's been watched all the time. She's scared to even go for a walk... it’s affected her family… It's affected her very badly.”

Blum-Dumontet says that the DWP’s use of data from third-party sources, as well as the Department’s use of data-matching algorithms, is a particular cause for concern. “Who wouldn’t feel paranoid? Who wouldn’t feel paranoid about the idea that when you buy something online the company is going to be sharing their data with the state that's giving you money.” Along with financial institutions and airlines such as EasyJet, the DWP can also source information from eBay, supermarkets, leisure centres and gyms, the BBC, and certain Sky subscription services.

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The DWP’s staff guide notes: "PayPal, a subsidiary of eBay, are willing to provide information in response to a standard DPA [Data Protection Act] letter...the standard DPA letter contains a suitable form of words to provide them with the assurances that the information is required for law enforcement purposes.” Paypal ceased to be a subsidiary of eBay in July 2015.

“It's not just privacy, it also goes against a very fundamental right to dignity,” says Blum-Dumontet, who says that Privacy International is still trying to uncover details about how the DWP flags claimants for investigation.

Originally the DWP claimed that investigations were carried out when members of the public reported claimants through the DWP’s National Benefit Fraud Hotline. And in Ellen’s case, Fletcher says that she and Ellen suspect the investigation was triggered by a report to the DWP Hotline.

But frontline workers and those familiar with the benefit system have suggested that the tip line – which allows neighbours and family members to report on those they believe are committing benefit fraud – is highly ineffective. An investigation by the Independent found that 87 percent of fraud reported through the tip line were dead ends that resulted in no action on the part of the Department. 

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Interestingly, the DWP has suggested that it uses other methods to carry out fraud investigations as well. “When you go through the annual report of the DWP, there is quite a lot that's made about how they're developing this fancy artificial intelligence to cut down on fraud,” says Blum-Dumontet. 

The DWP’s 2018-19 annual report noted that the Department was “using increasingly sophisticated data and analytical tools” to weed out fraud. Last August a representative for the DWP’s “Intelligent Automation Garage”, a unit of the Department that works closely with private AI companies like UiPath, noted that the facility was working on fraud detection technology and that there was, “[s]ome really exciting stuff on the cards.”

While an FOI request filed by Privacy International confirmed that the DWP was using data matching – what is essentially a simple algorithmic process – to flag benefit claimants for investigation, the DWP has been cagey about details. It’s unclear what behavioural patterns are triggering investigations. The DWP claims that revealing information about the fraud detection processes could potentially be used by criminals to carry out fraud. 

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But Blum-Dumontet says the DWP needs to be more transparent about how it uses algorithms. “We are at a turning point in society where we’re waking up to the fact that we need transparency on these issues – that you can’t use AI without clear safeguards and a clear understanding of what data is being used. How is this system going to work? And the fact that at this very early stage [the DWP] is already refusing to comply with any requests of transparency should really worry us.”

Labour Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions Jonathan Reynolds expressed concern at the findings of the Privacy International report. “Labour believes in a compassionate social security system that treats people with the dignity they have every right to expect. Instead, we have a punitive Universal Credit system that is failing thousands of families who are unable to afford the essentials they need in this crisis.”

Ellen’s fraud case is ongoing, but Fletcher says that they’re working to have the case dismissed. “It has long-lasting psychological effects on claimants. I think it makes them very wary of asking for help when they often need it the most. I think it's unnecessarily intrusive.”

In a written statement a DWP spokesperson said: “Privacy International’s report grossly mischaracterises the use, and extent, of DWP powers, which are subject to independent scrutiny.

“The limited powers that the Department does possess are used to prevent and detect potential crime, with surveillance conducted only when the Department is investigating potential fraud, and even then only in cases where all other relevant lines of enquiry have been exhausted.”

The DWP also stated that “companies are not under any legal obligation to provide the requested data.”

EasyJet declined to comment on specific data sharing practices but a representative for the company told VICE World News that “as a principle we only provide data in line with our legal obligations, including data protection.”

A spokesperson for PayPal said: “PayPal only releases information to law enforcement authorities where there is a legal obligation to do so. This includes making sure that the request is correct, legitimate and lawful.”

Blum-Dumontet questions whether the DWP is making it clear to companies that there is no legal obligation to share customer data with them. "The very fact that [the DWP’s] guide written for their own staff list those companies with the type of data they can request suggests they know there is a fair chance that the data does get handed over."

When questioned on this point by VICE World News, the DWP declined to comment further.

Update: This article was amended on 8th March to reflect that Paypal ceased to be a subsidiary of eBay in July 2015.