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What We Really (Should) Talk About When We Talk About Big Data

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, March 7 2014

Corporations don't need census data to guess your race & use it against you (Wikipedia)

Discrimination. Redlining. Racial profiling. These practices predate the Internet, and yet there is every indication that technology can enable infringements on civil rights to an even greater extent than before. Last week, in an effort to put civil rights at the forefront of the ongoing debate about digital privacy and security, a coalition of civil and human rights organizations jointly released “Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data,” five tenets to guide policy-making.

The five core ideas, supported by 14 organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, are: to end digital profiling that could lead to discrimination; to ensure automated decisions are fair for all parties; to protect constitutional rights; to give individuals more control over their own data; and to create a way for individuals to ensure the accuracy of their personal data.

These principles were published days after the Obama Administration announced a series of three big data events at universities around the country, and a mere month after the President commissioned a comprehensive review on big data and privacy. The first academic event took place earlier this week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; an event at New York University is scheduled for March 17 and a third at Berkeley on April 1.

The White House-commissioned 90-day review is due some time in April. In the blog post announcing the review, John Podesta, a counselor to the President, wrote:

We are undergoing a revolution in the way that information about our purchases, our conversations, our social networks, our movements, and even our physical identities are collected, stored, analyzed and used. The immense volume, diversity and potential value of data will have profound implications for privacy, the economy, and public policy.

Podesta's use of the future tense is jarring because big data has already had a profound effect on many Americans' (if not all) lives, and policy and regulation has lagged behind.

Algorithmic Police Surveillance in Chicago

“The Chicago heat map,” ACLU Legislative Counsel Chris Calabrese told techPresident, “should make every American very nervous.”

The heat map to which Calabrese refers is a list of more than 400 Chicago residents identified, through computer analysis, as being most likely to be involved in a shooting. The algorithm used by the police department, in an initiative funded by the National Institute of Justice, takes criminal offenses into account, as well as known acquaintances and their arrest histories. A 17-year-old girl made the list, as well as Robert McDaniel, a 22-year-old with only one misdemeanor conviction on his record.

It came as a surprise, then, when Chicago police commander Barbara West made an appearance to warn McDaniel that he is on their radar. According to the Chicago Tribune, West “cautioned that he could meet the same fate [as a friend who had been slain the previous year] if he didn't change his ways.”

“If you say 'that'd never happen to me', ask yourself why,” Calabrese said. “Is it because of your race? Because you're more affluent? If so, why do they think they can target specific communities?”

A policy analyst at the ACLU has outlined additional problems with the Chicago heat list, including the fact that “anyone who is scrutinized closely enough by the authorities is far more likely to actually be found to have run afoul of some law than a person who isn’t. . .the list could become a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

In a strongly worded post condemning the practice for its lack of transparency and objectivity, journalist Cory Doctorow called the Chicago police department's methods “pseudoscience,” adding:

In an earlier era, we would have called this discrimination -- or even witchhunting -- because the attribution of guilt (or any other trait) through secret and unaccountable systems is a superstitious, pre-rational way of approaching any problem.

Discriminatory Pricing Models

A Wall Street Journal investigation in 2012 revealed that Staples displays different product prices to online consumers based on their location. Consumers living near another major office supply store like OfficeMax or Office Depot would usually see a lower price than those not near a direct competitor.

One consequence of this practice is that areas that saw the discounted price generally had a higher average income than in the areas that saw the higher prices.

Price discrimination (what economists call differential pricing) is only illegal when based on race, sex, national origin or religion. Price discrimination based on ownership—for example, Orbitz showing more expensive hotel options to Mac users—or on place of residence, as in the Staples example, is technically okay in the eyes of the law.

However, when you consider that black Americans with incomes of more than $75,000 usually live in poorer areas than white Americans with incomes of only $40,000 a year, it is hard not to find Staples' price discrimination, well, discriminatory.

“These inequities pre-exist and predate the Internet,” Amalia Deloney, Grassroots Policy Director of the Center for Media Justice, another of the organizations supporting the Civil Rights Principles, told techPresident. “They're not going to go away. . .they're only going to be exacerbated and further entrenched.”

Yesterday The Atlantic published an article on “Redlining for the 21st Century” which outlines how companies can use big data to exploit and control consumers, and to exclude and alienate especially undesirable consumers. It is a truly chilling read, especially after poring over the report: “Consumers, Big Data, and Online Tracking in the Retail Industry: A Case Study of Walmart,” which describes how Walmart has collected “petabytes” of data on more than 145 million Americans, and has shared some portion of that with more than 50 third parties (which are then at liberty to parse and redistribute that data at will).

All the Bad Things That Can Happen on the Internet”

As government services move online and billions are spent on expanding broadband access and digital literacy programs, more Americans are coming online and they are ill-equipped to deal with privacy and security issues.

A recent study by Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, underscores the need for consumer protection and “privacy by default” standards. New users often come from communities that have endured “analog forms of data profiling” including redlining, predatory lending and political intimidation, and are understandably afraid of “all the bad things that can happen on the Internet.”

These Internet users are also at a higher risk of both digital discrimination and targeted scams.

“We [the coalition] wanted to bring into greater focus these issues of justice, fairness and equity,” Gangadharan told techPresident. “We didn't feel like these issues were being addressed” in the prevailing conversation about privacy and security.

In a conversation with techPresident, Kim Lehmkuhl, Senior Campaign Manager at Color of Change (another of the organizations supporting the principles), expressed dismay at the way the technology industry has dominated the conversation about privacy and security—namely, that policies have been about making Silicon Valley happy, not American citizens. She also lamented the fact that corporations will congratulate themselves for being a democratizing force in countries with authoritarian governments and use that as a defense for their practices in the United States.

We asked Lehmkuhl to elaborate on those ideas in an email:

And beyond constitutional considerations that come into play when our information gets turned over to government agencies, we're also seeing that massive corporate surveillance and vacuuming up of personally identifiable information has enabled the repackaging and auctioning of our data in ways deliberately designed to get around hard fought federal anti-discrimination protections, most notably in the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and Civil Rights Act. If Silicon Valley is getting mileage out of a professed interest in economic rights and development abroad, these companies had better be ready to do something about the predatory financial practices and housing and employment discrimination its business model is driving in Black and brown communities in the United States.

Big Data—Still Our Generation's Civil Rights Issue

This is just a sampling of the reasons the “Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data” need to be at the center of the discussion about privacy and security. In fact, many of them show how civil rights issues needed to be at the center of the conversation last year, or even the year before, because not much of this is new information.

In fact, in August 2012, Alistair Croll wrote a blog post entitled “Big data is our generation's civil rights issue, and we don't know it” in which he argues that the personalization that big data makes possible is just another word for discrimination (and not, as corporations would have us believe, “better service”). He observed that society is “ill-equipped to deal with” big data as a civil rights issue.

Society still is ill-equipped, but perhaps now that the White House has acknowledged it is a problem and legacy civil rights organizations have teamed up with media rights organizations to publish the “Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data,” it won't always be this way.