Making Algorithms and Big Data Accountable!

Dear Commons Community,

An algorithm is a procedure or set of instructions often used by a computer to solve a problem. A credit score, for instance, is based on an algorithm that examines an individual’s past debt and loan information.  It is also one of the few algorithms that consumers have a legal right to examine the underlying data used to generate it.  However, for most other algorithms, people are expected to read fine-print privacy policies, in the hopes of determining whether their data might be used against them in a way that they wouldn’t expect. Julia Angwin, a reporter for ProPublica, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times raising the issue of the public’s right to know and challenge algorithms that influence our lives.  Here is an excerpt:

“We urgently need more due process with the algorithmic systems influencing our lives,” says Kate Crawford, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research who has called for big data due process requirements. “If you are given a score that jeopardizes your ability to get a job, housing or education, you should have the right to see that data, know how it was generated, and be able to correct errors and contest the decision.”

The European Union has recently adopted a due process requirement for data-driven decisions based “solely on automated processing” that “significantly affect” citizens. The new rules, which are set to go into effect in May 2018, give European Union citizens the right to obtain an explanation of automated decisions and to challenge those decisions.

However, since the European regulations apply only to situations that don’t involve human judgment “such as automatic refusal of an online credit application or e-recruiting practices without any human intervention,” they are likely to affect a narrow class of automated decisions.

In 2012, the Obama administration proposed a “consumer privacy bill of rights” — modeled on European data protection principles — that would have allowed consumers to access and correct some data that was used to make judgments about them. But the measure died in Congress.”

Ms. Angwin raises an  important issue that has ramifications for many services (healthcare, criminal justice, job applications, college admissions, etc.).  This issue will become more important as various agencies and organizations collect more and more data on the populace.  There is especially a growing concern about the nature of data (grades, behavior, special education needs) that are being collected on school children and that can follow them into adulthood when applying  for admission to a college or for a job.



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