Beatrice Martini: Emerging questions on the ethics of algorithms


/ March 24, 2015

Beatrice Martini on the ‘Ethics of Algorithms’ event in Berlin on 9-10 March:

‘Using data scraped by years worth of crime reports, algorithms can identify areas with high probabilities for certain types of crime and groups likely to commit them. This practice can help the work of law enforcement agencies, but it’s of course also raising concerns about privacy, surveillance and how much power should be given over to algorithms…

…the original data are collected by people, which means that they could be skewed as there could be a discriminating practice at the bottom. So if datasets can’t be considered reliable, and decisions about their use are so subjective: shouldn’t not only the algorithms, but also the datasets and the decisions taken about them, be transparent?

…there’s a fine line between using predictive policing to target someone who’s an activist and deciding that that person represents a threat. This quickly translates into stigmatisation, exclusion, discrimination and undiscriminated surveillance of a community. 

Predictive policing is a political decision and it’s ultimately a matter of power. For example, we have a lot of data about the poor, because power is exercised to force them to provide way more information than it’s asked to wealthier citizens (see: concerns around the adoption of biometric analysis in development).

For more on the event, the Centre for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR), which hosted the event, has collected a series of follow-ups in this blogpost.

About the contributor

Tom started out writing and editing for newspapers, consultancies and think tanks on topics including politics and corruption in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, then moved into designing and managing election-related projects in countries including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Bolivia. After getting interested in what data and technology could add in those areas and elsewhere, he made a beeline for The Engine Room. Tom is trying to read all of the Internet, but mostly spends his time picking out useful resources and trends for organisations using technology in their work.

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