Algorithmic Accountability Reporting

The power algorithms exert over us and society as a whole is expanding into every sector. We talked to Jonathan Albright from the Tow Center and Lorenz Matzat from AlgorithmWatch about their research into these opaque power structures.

Freia Nahser
May 31, 2018 · 8 min read
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Who are we investigating?

‘It’s not the software that makes the decisions: their decision making processes are dictated by humans’, Matzat told us. ‘Software is vulnerable to error: unconscious human bias, deliberate manipulation, and it can transmit certain worldviews’.

How are we investigating?

‘Proprietary software and machine learning make it particularly difficult to understand the decision making processes. Even if machine learning processes are open source, they are barely impenetrable without the training data sets that were used. This is why it’s no longer enough to ask for transparency — we also need traceability’, said Matzat.

Crowdsourcing for reverse engineering

Seeing as algorithms are often proprietary, reverse engineering is a good way to uncover what’s going on behind the scenes.

An example: Cracking Germany’s credit scoring system

SCHUFA (Schutzorganisation für Allgemeine Kreditsicherung) is a private company that keeps credit records of all people living in Germany. It knows all the bills you’ve ever paid (or haven’t) and when you want to apply for a loan, a flat, or open your landline; your bank, landlord, or Deutsche Telekom will check your SCHUFA score to see if you’re trustworthy. Ten million people in Germany are disadvantaged as a result of a low SCHUFA score.

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Schufa record clipping

Where else should we be looking?

Not always the usual suspects: Is YouTube a misinformation engine?

‘One of the most concerning themes at the moment is how algorithms play a large role in distinguishing between fact and fiction’, Albright told us. ‘In a way, the truths we understand and process as reality are surfaced through algorithmic systems like Google search, YouTube’s trending videos, and, of course, Facebook’s News Feed’.

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Some returned video topics from Albright’s research

Audit yourself

Mathematician Cathy O’Neil has launched a service offering businesses to test their algorithms for fairness. But ‘companies aren’t knocking down her door yet (she has only six clients), wrote Erin Winick in MIT Technology review’s The Algorithm. ‘But they should be: not only is it in society’s best interest, it’s also good marketing. Getting your algorithm certified for fairness can prove to customers that your service is equitable and effective’.

Impact

Change will be challenging for multinationals

‘I think that Facebook has been successfully held accountable by journalists, technologists, and researchers. Now, whether they will be held duly accountable by policymakers, legislative committees, and the public(s) in the locations they operate is a different story. ‘Change’, at least in quotations, will be uniquely challenging for a company like Facebook: their business model is built upon intercepting, filtering and recommending information through complex and proprietary (non–transparent) algorithms to algorithmically segmented audiences’, said Albright.

Inspiration

Here are some people to watch, according to Jonathan Albright

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide…

Thanks to Evangeline

Freia Nahser

Written by

News & innovation reporter @GENinnovate

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.

Freia Nahser

Written by

News & innovation reporter @GENinnovate

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.

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