An Algorithm That Grants Freedom, or Takes It Away

Cade Metz and Adam Satariano at The New York Times: “…In Philadelphia, an algorithm created by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania has helped dictate the experience of probationers for at least five years.

The algorithm is one of many making decisions about people’s lives in the United States and Europe. Local authorities use so-called predictive algorithms to set police patrols, prison sentences and probation rules. In the Netherlands, an algorithm flagged welfare fraud risks. A British city rates which teenagers are most likely to become criminals.

Nearly every state in America has turned to this new sort of governance algorithm, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit dedicated to digital rights. Algorithm Watch, a watchdog in Berlin, has identified similar programs in at least 16 European countries.

As the practice spreads into new places and new parts of government, United Nations investigators, civil rights lawyers, labor unions and community organizers have been pushing back.

They are angered by a growing dependence on automated systems that are taking humans and transparency out of the process. It is often not clear how the systems are making their decisions. Is gender a factor? Age? ZIP code? It’s hard to say, since many states and countries have few rules requiring that algorithm-makers disclose their formulas.

They also worry that the biases — involving race, class and geography — of the people who create the algorithms are being baked into these systems, as ProPublica has reported. In San Jose, Calif., where an algorithm is used during arraignment hearings, an organization called Silicon Valley De-Bug interviews the family of each defendant, takes this personal information to each hearing and shares it with defenders as a kind of counterbalance to algorithms.

Two community organizers, the Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia and MediaJustice in Oakland, Calif., recently compiled a nationwide database of prediction algorithms. And Community Justice Exchange, a national organization that supports community organizers, is distributing a 50-page guide that advises organizers on how to confront the use of algorithms.

The algorithms are supposed to reduce the burden on understaffed agencies, cut government costs and — ideally — remove human bias. Opponents say governments haven’t shown much interest in learning what it means to take humans out of the decision making. A recent United Nations report warned that governments risked “stumbling zombie-like into a digital-welfare dystopia.”…(More)”.