Data Violence and How Bad Engineering Choices Can Damage Society

Blog by Anna Lauren Hoffmann: “…In 2015, a black developer in New York discovered that Google’s algorithmic photo recognition software had tagged pictures of him and his friends as gorillas.

The same year, Facebook auto-suspended Native Americans for using their real names, and in 2016, facial recognition was found to struggle to read black faces.

Software in airport body scanners has flagged transgender bodies as threatsfor years. In 2017, Google Translate took gender-neutral pronouns in Turkish and converted them to gendered pronouns in English — with startlingly biased results.

“Violence” might seem like a dramatic way to talk about these accidents of engineering and the processes of gathering data and using algorithms to interpret it. Yet just like physical violence in the real world, this kind of “data violence” (a term inspired by Dean Spade’s concept of administrative violence) occurs as the result of choices that implicitly and explicitly lead to harmful or even fatal outcomes.

Those choices are built on assumptions and prejudices about people, intimately weaving them into processes and results that reinforce biases and, worse, make them seem natural or given.

Take the experience of being a woman and having to constantly push back against rigid stereotypes and aggressive objectification.

Writer and novelist Kate Zambreno describes these biases as “ghosts,” a violent haunting of our true reality. “A return to these old roles that we play, that we didn’t even originate. All the ghosts of the past. Ghosts that aren’t even our ghosts.”

Structural bias is reinforced by the stereotypes fed to us in novels, films, and a pervasive cultural narrative that shapes the lives of real women every day, Zambreno describes. This extends to data and automated systems that now mediate our lives as well. Our viewing and shopping habits, our health and fitness tracking, our financial information all conspire to create a “data double” of ourselves, produced about us by third parties and standing in for us on data-driven systems and platforms.

These fabrications don’t emerge de novo, disconnected from history or social context. Rather, they often pick up and unwittingly spit out a tangled mess of historical conditions and current realities.

Search engines are a prime example of how data and algorithms can conspire to amplify racist and sexist biases. The academic Safiya Umoja Noble threw these messy entanglements into sharp relief in her book Algorithms of OppressionGoogle Search, she explains, has a history of offering up pages of porn for women from particular racial or ethnic groups, and especially black women. Google have also served up ads for criminal background checksalongside search results for African American–sounding names, as former Federal Trade Commission CTO Latanya Sweeney discovered.

“These search engine results for women whose identities are already maligned in the media, such as Black women and girls, only further debase and erode efforts for social, political, and economic recognition and justice,” Noble says.

These kinds of cultural harms go well beyond search results. Sociologist Rena Bivens has shown how the gender categories employed by platforms like Facebook can inflict symbolic violences against transgender and nonbinary users in ways that may never be made obvious to users….(More)”.