Civil Rights, Big Data, and Our Algorithmic Future

PDF: Civil Rights, Big Data, and Our Algorithmic Future - A September 2014 report on social justice and technology


The key decisions that shape people’s lives—decisions about jobs, healthcare, housing, education, criminal justice and other key area are, more and more often, being made automatically by computers. As a result, a growing number of important conversations about civil rights, which focus on how these decisions are made, are also becoming discussions about how computer systems work.

Earlier this year, a path-breaking coalition of major civil rights and media justice organizations released the Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data, highlighting how the growing use of digital surveillance, predictive analytics, and automated decision-making impacts core civil rights concerns. We served as technical advisors to that coalition.

After the release of the Principles, there was an outpouring of interest from policymakers, community advocates, corporate leaders and the public. People want to know more about the concrete examples that motivate this work. How and where, exactly, does big data become a civil rights issue? This report begins to answer that question, highlighting key instances where big data and civil rights intersect.

We hope it will serve as a valuable resource to everyone involved in this important, emerging conversation.

Chapter 1: Financial Inclusion

  • As Insurers Embrace Big Data, Fewer Risks Are Shared
  • Data Brokers Enable Targeting of Financially Vulnerable Communities
  • Furthering Financial Inclusion with “Alternative Data”

Chapter 2: Jobs

  • E-Verify: The Disparate Impact of Automated Matching Programs
  • Hiring Algorithms May Put Jobs Out of Reach
  • In Online Searches, Big Data Systems Reproduce Racial Bias

Chapter 3: Criminal Justice

  • Predictive Policing: From Neighborhoods to Individuals
  • Secrecy Is a Barrier to Responsible Use of Police Technologies
  • Body-Worn Cameras Can Promote Police Accountability

Chapter 4: Government Data Collection and Use

  • Dragnet Surveillance Short-Circuits Court Review in Drug Cases
  • The Temptation to Abuse Government Databases
  • The Census: Big Data for Civic Welfare
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From one of the world’s leading data scientists, a landmark tour of the new science of idea flow, offering revolutionary insights into the mysteries of collective intelligence and social influence.

If the Big Data revolution has a presiding genius, it is MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland. Over years of groundbreaking experiments, he has distilled remarkable discoveries significant enough to become the bedrock of a whole new scientific field: social physics. Humans have more in common with bees than we like to admit: We’re social creatures first and foremost. Our most important habits of action—and most basic notions of common sense—are wired into us through our coordination in social groups. Social physics is about idea flow, the way human social networks spread ideas and transform those ideas into behaviors

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Someone told me the other day that the Volker Act is being implemented through a Watson like interface and bank lawyers are crying about it because it cuts down on bs. If their stuff can’t make it through the filter it doesn’t get any further.