How Big Data Could Undo Our Civil-Rights Laws

Virginia Eubanks in the American Prospect: “From “reverse redlining” to selling out a pregnant teenager to her parents, the advance of technology could render obsolete our landmark civil-rights and anti-discrimination laws.

Big Data will eradicate extreme world poverty by 2028, according to Bono, front man for the band U2. But it also allows unscrupulous marketers and financial institutions to prey on the poor. Big Data, collected from the neonatal monitors of premature babies, can detect subtle warning signs of infection, allowing doctors to intervene earlier and save lives. But it can also help a big-box store identify a pregnant teenager—and carelessly inform her parents by sending coupons for baby items to her home. News-mining algorithms might have been able to predict the Arab Spring. But Big Data was certainly used to spy on American Muslims when the New York City Police Department collected license plate numbers of cars parked near mosques, and aimed surveillance cameras at Arab-American community and religious institutions.

Until recently, debate about the role of metadata and algorithms in American politics focused narrowly on consumer privacy protections and Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA). That Big Data might have disproportionate impacts on the poor, women, or racial and religious minorities was rarely raised. But, as Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, a civil rights organization that seeks to empower black Americans and their allies, point out in a commentary at TPM Cafe, while big data can change business and government for the better, “it is also supercharging the potential for discrimination.”

In his January 17 speech on signals intelligence, President Barack Obama acknowledged as much, seeking to strike a balance between defending “legitimate” intelligence gathering on American citizens and admitting that our country has a history of spying on dissidents and activists, including, famously, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If this balance seems precarious, it’s because the links between historical surveillance of social movements and today’s uses of Big Data are not lost on the new generation of activists.

“Surveillance, big data and privacy have a historical legacy,” says Amalia Deloney, policy director at the Center for Media Justice, an Oakland-based organization dedicated to strengthening the communication effectiveness of grassroots racial justice groups. “In the early 1960s, in-depth, comprehensive, orchestrated, purposeful spying was used to disrupt political movements in communities of color—the Yellow Peril, the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, or the Black Panthers—to create fear and chaos, and to spread bias and stereotypes.”

In the era of Big Data, the danger of reviving that legacy is real, especially as metadata collection renders legal protection of civil rights and liberties less enforceable….

Big Data and surveillance are unevenly distributed. In response, a coalition of 14 progressive organizations, including the ACLU, ColorOfChange, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, and the NOW Foundation, recently released five “Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data.” In their statement, they demand:

  • An end to high-tech profiling;
  • Fairness in automated decisions;
  • The preservation of constitutional principles;
  • Individual control of personal information; and
  • Protection of people from inaccurate data.

This historic coalition aims to start a national conversation about the role of big data in social and political inequality. “We’re beginning to ask the right questions,” says O’Neill. “It’s not just about what can we do with this data. How are communities of color impacted? How are women within those communities impacted? We need to fold these concerns into the national conversation.”

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