Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon, along with powerful corporations and numerous government agencies are setting the rules.
Cyberspace is no longer an escape from the real world. It is now a force governing the world via algorithms, hidden from view thanks to secrecy imposed by law.
For those not familiar with the term, an algorithm is simply a formula or set of steps for solving a particular problem, expressed in any language, from English or French, to programming languages such as FORTRAN.
Large corporations are collecting data from both workers and customers, using algorithmic tools to make decisions, to sort the “desirable” from the “disposable.” Companies may be parsing your voice and credit record when you call them, to determine whether you match up to ‘ideal customer’ status, or are simply ‘waste’ who can be treated with disdain. Algorithms guide movie studies on what scripts to purchase based on how closely they match past, successful scripts. Hospitals use big data-driven systems outside of traditional health records to determine which patients are high-risk.
IBM uses algorithmic to sort employees worldwide on criteria of cost-effectiveness, sparing management and corporate heads the same invasive surveillance and ranking, of course. Governments use of algorithmic assessments can lead to longer sentences for convicts, or to supply the infamous “no-fly” list for travelers. Credit-scoring drives billions of dollars in lending, but the scorers’ methods remain opaque. The average borrower could lose tens of thousands of dollars over a lifetime, thanks to wrong or unfairly processed data.
The CEO of ZestFinance proudly proclaimed that ‘all data is credit data,’ that is to say, predictive analytics can take virtually any scrap of information about you, your sexual orientation, your political views, your age, where you live, where you work, what you drive, etc., analyze whether it corresponds to a characteristic of known-to-be-creditworthy people, and extrapolate accordingly. Marriage counseling may be treated as a signal of impending instability and lead to higher interest rates or lower credit limits. CompuCredit, without admitting any wrongdoing, has already settled a lawsuit for doing just that.
Some data collection methods are just too invasive to be permitted in a civilized society. For example, a former worker at Intermex claims that she was fired after she disabled an app that enabled the firm to track her location constantly. Now, that employer might feel that they have sound business reasons, beyond voyeurism, for tracking employees. Say, they discover that employees who are at home by 8 pm every day tend to perform better at work the next day. With that in mind they can then gradually introduce incentives or requirements for that particular behavior among their entire workforce. However, in a democratic society, what we do on our time should be private. There has to be some division between work and non-work life!
Ever googled yourself? If you haven’t, I would not recommend you do. There is a shady world of thousands of mostly unregulated data brokers out there who create these profiles without consent. Just one casual slur against you, one crazy picture on facebook, could enter into a random database without your knowledge and be instantly spread between databases purporting to report on your health, your finances, your marital status, your employment, your competence, your driving record, or criminal record. Information which, without your knowledge, will be used to decide if you are credit worthy, or employment worthy, or how much interest rates you pay on your loan, or whether or not you can get insurance on your car, or home.
In a world full of algorithmically driven decisions, it doesn’t take much to wreck your life. Therefore, it is vital that we be empowered to see and regulate the digital dossiers of business giants and government agencies. Even if you believe that no information should be deleted, that every slip and indiscretion should be on a permanent record, that still leaves important decisions to be made about the processing of the data or where the information is procured.
Algorithms can be made accountable, respecting rights of fairness and dignity for which generations have fought. The challenge isn’t technical, but political. Most of the ruling political powers-that-be are in the pockets of big business and until we get them out of office, replaced hopefully with politicians who care about their constituents, don’t expect the situation to change.
Source: Algorithms, by Frank Pasquale. First published at Aeon