Anyone whose life is touched by the welfare state, whether that is in social care, benefits or housing, may now be impacted by secretive data profiling, predictive analytics and algorithmic decisions. Algorithms, artificial intelligence and vast stores of data are being used to profile and monitor swathes of the population, a number that has only increased during the pandemic.


One in three councils use algorithms to make welfare decisions

Huge databases are being used to predict which children are at risk of harm or involvement in crime and which families are vulnerable, with little evidence the predictions are any better than the views of an experienced social worker, while benefits applicants are profiled and risk scored by computer systems by the Department for Work and Pensions and their local council.

Private companies market these algorithms as cost-saving measures. Public bodies claim they use them to target resources and cut fraud - but these tools, operating in the shadows, can cast suspicion on innocent people. Claims of commercial confidentiality are used to shelter these systems from public accountability so little is known about how they work, their biases or how much the computers lead human decision making.

Big Brother Watch is changing that. A long-term investigation will uncover much more about how the British welfare system is being controlled by automation and algorithms.

The key problems

  • A LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY - private companies make these tools and then hide behind commercial confidentiality when asked to show how they work
  • A LACK OF HUMANITY - automated processing can never be a substitute for the understanding a real person shows for another human’s problems
  • A LACK OF EVIDENCE - there is a mounting body of work that these tools do not save money, do not save time and do not make better decisions than human beings
  • A LACK OF LEGAL PROTECTIONS - the justifications that underpin the data processing are often shaky and there is little consideration of potential bias in the machine
  • MASS DATA COLLECTION - These tools rely on huge swathes of your personal data being brought together in new ways and sometimes councils even buy our information from data brokers

We have already exposed the system being used to predict economic and social vulnerability during the pandemic but there is much more to do.

There are a number of key areas our investigation will cover, including:

  • Risk scoring (known as Risk Based Verification) of Housing Benefit, Council Tax Support and Universal Credit.
  • Predictive analytics in children’s social care, adult vulnerability and homelessness
  • Data analysis in social housing, including tools that claim to predict who will fall short on their rent
  • Surveillance in adult social care, from fridge-door sensors to video calls replacing in person care

So many of these areas are shrouded in secrecy and we cannot shine a light on all of them alone. We need YOUR help to use one of the most powerful tools to find out how data is being used, a Subject Access Request


Data protection rules entitle you to ask any public body how they use your information and why - your Subject Access Request lets you find what data your council holds on you and how it is used.

If you get a response and decide to share it confidentially with Big Brother Watch for our research we promise to do everything we can to explain how your data is being processed in return.

Enter your local authority into the box below and you’ll be given a template Subject Access Request, based on what we think is going on at your council, and send it in.

You may be asked to provide a copy of some ID to make sure you’re getting the right data, this is completely normal. You are always entitled to see how your info is used under the Data Protection Act.

Let us know if you have sent off a Subject Access Request, or if you have any questions, by emailing us at info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk

Make a Subject Access Request by following these steps

  1. Identify the authority to send the request to and search online for their subject access request process. Many councils now have online forms for subject access requests. A list of all councils is available here.
  2. Contact your council stating clearly that specific information that you want. We’ve included a template below that you can personalise. It is important to include a) your contact details; b) any additional information (account numbers, etc.) that the council may use to distinguish you from others
  3. Search online for “Subject Access Request” and your council’s name to find the correct email or postal address to send your DSAR to - email is usually easier.
  4. Submit your request and retain a copy of your request, along with proof of sending/postage

If you share your response with us, we will treat it confidentially and help you understand what it means. Get in touch with our teams at info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk

Spread the word!

Increase your impact: Share our work with anyone you think might be affected by this mass data gathering and ask them to get in touch!