Unfortunately, benefits fraud is not a new concept. It’s one that not only costs important services and agencies massive amounts of money every year, but it also negatively impacts those who genuinely need those benefits the most.
Hidden cameraIn the United States, for example, one recent study revealed that about 1.9 percent of all unemployment insurance benefits claims were steeped in instances of fraud. The Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services alone reported that out of 1.5 million cases handled every year on average, about 60,000 of them were fraudulent across just 2004 and 2005. According to data obtained in 2011, fraud rate for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) came in at roughly 2 percent.

While it’s certainly true that those numbers aren’t necessarily high, and the rate of fraud has actually been declining over the last few years, they’re still alarming when all things are considered. Benefits packages like SNAP or other assistance programs are ones that people literally depend on to provide for and feed their families. It’s imperative to make sure that every dollar goes to someone who actually deserves it for this reason above all others.

This is an issue that our friends across the pond in Scotland are also dealing with, although they’re taking an interestingly tech-driven approach to a solution. Recently, Scotland’s new welfare agency has been using anti-terror surveillance powers to spy on benefit fraudsters in that country. The results so far have been fascinating to say the least.

Scotland and Benefit Fraudsters: What You Need to Know

In an effort to successful combat welfare fraud, Social Security Scotland recently took the unprecedented step of applying for the power to use the RIPSA Act (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Scotland) to their advantage. Essentially, they’re asking for the ability to use the same type of technology that is commonly employed to stop terrorists to prevent people from milking a system that is devoted to giving people the financial assistance they need when they need it most.

The RIPSA Act originally began life as a way to combat serious crime and terrorism in Scotland. Over the last few years, however, they’ve been used by a wide range of organizations to do everything from mount surveillance operations on local criminals to gaining insight into fly tipping and more. Based on that, the idea that this technology could be applied elsewhere to cut down on benefits fraud makes a certain degree of sense. Critics, however, aren’t too sure.

If used only in the way outlined by the proposal, it’s hard to argue against the fact that this is an important step to take. Unfortunately, things don’t always go as outlined — especially once the government gets involved. Legal and policy officer Griff Ferris of the civil liberty group Big Brother Watch said that this could be a way for law enforcement agencies to use covert surveillance techniques to disproportionately target people who are on welfare for other reasons than just looking for fraud-based situations. He said that this is extremely intrusive and is not a decision that should be made lightly.

If approved, agencies would be able to install hidden cameras and other types of devices to bug and photograph people in a public space. Undercover law officers and other agents would also be allowed to follow people that they suspect have broken the law, or are about to. Again — nobody is arguing that benefits fraud is a serious issue that should be addressed in some meaningful and long-term way. Privacy advocates are just passionate about the fact that this may not be the way to do it.

If approved, this could open a door that can never be closed again — one that would once again erode what is left of the privacy for a massive group of people. Either way, this is a situation that people all over the globe will be watching closely. It’ll be especially interesting to see if other countries with similar issues follow suit in the not-too-distant future.