Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Digitizing security: How digital risk-profiling is developed in practice

How are digital risk-profiles developed and used in practice?

Daan Weggemans
Gemeente Den haag Gemeente Den haag

Personal data are increasingly collected and stored digitally. Think of the faces and behaviors of people (captured by smart cameras in public spaces), vehicles on motorways, travel details of airline passengers, web surfing habits, tax information or the energy consumption in households. This growing amount of digital data is used by governments and businesses for a variety of purposes. For example for better service provision or commercial market research but also to anticipate various social security risks.

         Approaches aimed at combating human trafficking, problematic youths, fraud, terrorism, motor vehicle theft and child abuse all increasingly rely on the combination of information and communication technology (ICT) and digital data. From these data ‘risk profiles’ can be generated. These profiles distinguish (potentially) ‘dangerous’ from ‘regular’ people.  For instance, someone with a low income, but with an expensive car can be labelled as a ‘potential fraud’. Children can be signified as ‘youth at risk’ for criminal behavior when they are from lower income ‘families’ (‘risk families’), have weak family ties and are seen frequently “hanging out” on the street. Being assigned a certain risk profile may have all kinds of implications, like additional monitoring by authorities, access constraints or mandatory aid.    

         Profiling people is by no means a novel phenomenon. The volume and complexity of available data and the used digital techniques however are new. Because of this, the profiling process today is on a much larger scale and often (semi-)automated.  Digital profiling offers important chances to combat serious societal problems but isn’t without controversy. Over the last decades its implications on, among other things, privacy, social equality and human autonomy have been fiercely debated both in and outside academia.

Up to present day there has only been limited attention for how digital profiles are being developed and applied in practice. This research project focusses on how digital risk profiles come about. To be more specific: it tries to map those actors involved, the roles they play and the choices they make during the development and implementation of digital risk profiles. These empirical insights contribute to a broader understanding of the  actual opportunities and risks involved with this contemporary form of surveillance. 

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