DHS Algorithms – Putting Discrimination Beyond Discussion

Coalition of 100+ tech groups and leaders warn the DHS that “extreme vetting” software will be a worse-than-useless, discriminatory nightmare by Cory Doctorow.

From the post:

In a pair of open letters to Letter to The Honorable Elaine C. Duke, Acting Secretary of Homeland, a coalition of more than 100 tech liberties groups and leading technology experts urged the DHS to abandon its plan to develop a black-box algorithmic system for predicting whether foreigners coming to the USA to visit or live are likely to be positive contributors or risks to the nation.

The letters warn that algorithmic assessment tools will be prone to religious and racial bias, in which programmers get to decide, without evidence, debate or transparency, what kind of person should be an American — which jobs, attitudes, skills and family types are “American” and which ones are “undesirable.”

Further, the system for predicting terrorist proclivities will draw from an infinitesimal data-set of known terrorists, whose common characteristics will be impossible to divide between correlative and coincidental.

If the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needed confirmation it’s on the right track, then Doctorow and “the 100 tech liberties groups and leading technology experts” have provided that confirmation.


The letters warn that algorithmic assessment tools will be prone to religious and racial bias, in which programmers get to decide, without evidence, debate or transparency, what kind of person should be an American — which jobs, attitudes, skills and family types are “American” and which ones are “undesirable.”

To discriminate “…without evidence, debate or transparency…” is an obvious, if unstated, goal of the DHS “black-box algorithmic system.”

The claim by Doctorow and others the system will be ineffectual:

…the system for predicting terrorist proclivities will draw from an infinitesimal data-set of known terrorists, whose common characteristics will be impossible to divide between correlative and coincidental

imposes a requirement of effectiveness that has never been applied to the DHS.

Examples aren’t hard to find but consider that since late 2001, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) has not caught a single terrorist. Let me repeat that: Since late 2001, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) has not caught a single terrorist. But visit any airport and the non-terrorist catching TSA is in full force.

Since the Naturalization Act of 1790 forward, granting naturalization to “…free white person[s]…,” US immigration policy has been, is and likely will always be, a seething cauldron of discrimination.

That the DNS wants to formalize whim, caprice and discrimination into algorithms “…without evidence, debate or transparency…” comes as no surprise.

That Doctorow and others think pointing out discrimination to those with a history, habit and intent to discriminate is meaningful is surprising.

I’m doubtful that educating present members of Congress about the ineffective and discriminatory impact of the DHS plan will be useful as well. Congress is the source of the current discriminatory laws governing travel and immigration so I don’t sense a favorable reception there either.

Perhaps new members of Congress or glitches in DHS algorithms/operations that lead to unforeseen consequences?

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