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An algorithm is watching you

When buying things online, watching movies on Netflix or applying for a car loan, an algorithm is watching you.

Published: February 13, 2017, 11:52 am

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    Algorithms are being used extensively to determine shopper preferences, but also in matters of politics. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign used the input behavioral marketers who employed an algorithm to locate the highest concentrations of “persuadable voters”.

    The complex mathematical formulas suggest new Facebook friends, the best applicant for a job, how police resources are deployed, and who gets insurance at what cost. It also decides who is on a “no fly” list, AFP reported.

    While some argue that is is an objective tool, fears are rising over the lack of transparency algorithms imply and the “lack of accountability” it brings.

    Data scientist Cathy O’Neil cautions about “blindly trusting” math formulas to determine a fair outcome: “Algorithms are not inherently fair, because the person who builds the model defines success,” she said.

    In her 2016 book, “Weapons of Math Destruction,” she cites some troubling examples where a discovery of more minor crimes create a “feedback loop” which stigmatizes poor black communities.

    Many jurisdictions are also using “predictive policing” to shift resources to likely “hot spots”, but O’Neil is against such move.

    She says some courts rely on computer-ranked formulas to determine jail sentences and parole, which may discriminate against black minorities by taking into account “risk” factors such as their neighborhoods and friend or family links to crime.

    Insurance brokers “scrape” data online for credit or insurance, but O”Neil is worried about prejudice against the racially disadvantaged.

    Her findings were echoed in a White House report last year warning against algorithms “systematically disadvantaging certain groups”.

    Frank Pasquale, a University of Maryland law professor and author of “The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information,” says the European Union’s data protection law which offers a “right of explanation” when consumers are impacted by an algorithmic decision, is a model that could be expanded.

    But Alethea Lange, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the EU plan “sounds good” but “is really burdensome” and risked proving unworkable in practice.

    Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is not worried about algorithms: “We are concerned about bias, accountability and ethical decisions but those exist whether you are using algorithms or not.”

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