It’s time for transparency of algorithms

By Laurence Millar

Member with Delegated Authority

Algorithms inform many interactions between individuals and institutions, but are unseen. Algorithms control the results of your Google searches and all that you see on Facebook. Algorithms control the decisions of financial institutions, telecommunications companies, supermarkets and all large corporate institutions. They are used by government agencies to make decisions, entitlements, investigations and most aspects of digital service delivery.

Despite the pervasive use of algorithms, there is little public discussion or informed debate on the social licence for their use. Shoshana Zuboff, in her landmark work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, proposes that the covert harvesting and analysis of individuals’ data is a conscious four step process of dispossession, habituation, adaptation and redirection. By the time people know what has happened, it is too late to take back control.

Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) considers that algorithms used by government agencies should be transparent so that the public is able to know why a particular algorithm-driven decision has been made. Government is already piloting the use of algorithms in the Justice sector (predictive policing, facial recognition and sentencing guidelines) without any social licence. TINZ does not support the use of algorithms on a pilot basis without a commitment to algorithmic transparency.

Stats NZ released an Algorithm Charter in 2020 that contains a framework to guide government agencies in the use of algorithms. TINZ supports this charter although we consider that it needs a stronger mandate. We also see a need for a similar framework for private sector use of algorithms. Stats NZ will conduct a review of the impact of the Charter, in July 2021.

The international Open Government Partnership (OGP) has identified this work in Aotearoa (New Zealand) as being of interest globally and has invited TINZ and Stats NZ to participate in their Global Leaders Network, to take this work to a broader audience.

TINZ contributed to Algorithmic transparency and accountability a report by Transparency International (global) on the complex issues involved.

Algorithmic transparency is also needed in the commercial sector. The European Commission is proposing a Digital Services Act to require large commercial platforms to adopt algorithmic transparency. These should be considered for adoption in Aotearoa.

We want to see more discussion on this subject and are planning a civil society hui where participants can generate advocacy points and actions to to improve algorithmic transparency. in Aotearoa.

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