Working paper 12 - Ethical Dilemmas of Using Big Data in Social Welfare Administration


Big Data has now become vital in public welfare administration. Extensive data collection, classification, and processing are necessary for social service application, recipient selection, and service provision. This paper examines the ethical issues of using big data in the surveillance of welfare recipients through the case study of the South Korea’s Social Security Information System (SSIS). The South Korean government digitalised the administrative procedures for public assistance in 2000 and has continuously upgraded the social welfare information system, strengthening welfare fraud tracking tools and adding pre-spotting functions for disadvantaged groups who can be potential recipients. However, surveillance over the personal data of marginalised people is inevitable when conducting such investigations.

Dataveillance via information systems reignites the old debate about the true nature of social welfare: Does it serve as a tool for social control or social care? Welfare dataveillance also compels us to revisit classic ethical questions: “If the purpose (detection of welfare fraud) is just, can the means (dataveillance) be justified?”, “If a practice benefits society (pre-detection of people in need), should we tolerate its infringement on individual freedom (dataveillance)?”

Taking South Korea’s SSIS as an exemplar case, this paper examines ethical concerns that social welfare administration may face while conducting big data surveillance. The first part of this paper introduces the brief history of the Social Security Information System of South Korea and reviews the controversial debates surrounding welfare dataveillance. Then, drawing on in-depth interviews with eight welfare officials in South Korea, it explores the ethical problems in data surveillance according to the framework PAPA (Privacy, Accuracy, Property, and Accessibility). Subsequently, it discusses three fundamental dilemmas facing social welfare in the digital era: dilemmas between Assessment vs. Analysis; Data vs. Reality; and Social control vs. Social solidarity. The conclusion suggests policy alternatives to address the ethical challenges of social welfare digitalisation.

About the author

Dr. Suyoung Kim is visiting researcher ath the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for BOLD Cities. She is Associate Professor at the Department of Social Welfare of Seoul National University. 

A previous version of this paper was published in Korean (Suyoung Kim, 2016, “Social welfare ethics in the information age: Focusing on dataveillance through social welfare information system”, Korean Journal of Social Welfare, 68(1), 193-224). This updated and translated version of the study is to be presented at a BOLD Talk at the Centre for BOLD Cities on 14th May 2024.

Workingpaper-Suyoung Kim.pdf (818.38 KB)