Monday, May 23, 2016

The tyranny of the algorithm yet again...

I was reminded yet again, over the weekend, how easy it is to get branded persona non grata in the age of the judgmental algorithm.

A search for "Isis Close" via any popular search engine throws up a significant collection of such streets, primarily in the Thames Valley region, in places like Long Hanborough, Aylesbury, Oxford, Abingdon and Putney, amongst others.

That these place names exist won't be a surprise to anyone familiar with English limnology - the study of rivers and inland waters. As Wikipedia helpfully tells us, "The Isis is the name given to the part of the River Thames above Iffley Lock which flows through the university city of Oxford". In at least one local primary school I'm familiar with, the classes are called Windrush, Cherwell, Isis and Thames.

Unfortunately for those who live in an Isis Close, Street, Road or other equivalent, the label Isis has been appropriated by or conferred upon (by the media) a bunch of murderous extremists in the Middle East. So the word "Isis" has become somewhat toxic in the West.

Now PayPal has decided that they are not prepared to facilitate payments for goods to be delivered to an address which includes the word "Isis".

An Isis street resident ran into some unexpected difficulties when attempting to purchase a small quantity of haberdashery on the internet with the aid of a PayPal account. The transaction would not process. In puzzlement she eventually got irritated enough to brave the 24/7 customer support telephone tag labyrinth. The short version of the response from the eventual real person she managed to get through to was that PayPal have blacklisted addresses which include the name "Isis". They will not process payments for goods to be delivered to an Isis related address, whatever state of privileged respectability the residents of such properties may have earned or inherited in their lifetimes to this point.

Who knows if the "avoid Isis" algorithm was added by a low level techie, a policy decision within PayPal driven by risk averse lawyers or some other process. Whatever the process, the result is that people with an Isis address have been tagged with a "do not touch" label on the internet.

We rarely understand that the poor, the mentally or physically disabled, ethnic and religious minorities, and every other collective marginalised group that privileged society discriminates against already live in a dystopian world. A world full of legal, environmental, economic and societal strictures and attitudes that make life difficult. We rarely understand, either, how easy it is, in a world full of big data, wielded by commerce and governments alike, to be cast out from our world of privilege to that of the marginalised.

So what are residents of "Isis" addresses to do. Interestingly enough, PayPal are not so wedded to their dissociation from "Isis" that they are banning this particular brand of humanity from holding PayPal accounts. The marginalised are still potentially profitable fodder. The organisation is merely concerned with not facilitating transactions which result in goods or services being delivered to those addresses. So Isis addressees could
  • have their orders delivered to an alternative address for collection
  • apply to the local council to have the name of their street changed
  • move house
The first is a serious inconvenience. The latter two options rather extreme and even then, given the tendency of unwelcome labels to hang around people on the internet and in big databases, there's no guarantee that a change of street name or address, drastic as they are, would entirely rid the people concerned of the tyranny of the algorithm.

Being unable to buy a sewing kit on the internet might seem like a minor middle class inconvenience but metadata, like details of someone's address, matters. It's only two years since the former US National Security Agency and CIA chief, General Michael Hayden, went on record with his "We kill people based on metadata" comment. Metadata is used to categorise and discriminate. We have no control over what commercial organisations or government or other economic actors and indeed criminals do with it.

With the UK Investigatory Powers Bill heading for the statute books, and the government taking little or no notice of the serious criticism it has received, this state of affairs is not primed to improve any time soon. Could I remind the reader of this simple engineer's perspective of the meaning of s78 alone in this large and complex law - it looks a bit like this:
I leave you to decide whether the government and its institutions will be able or willing to use this unimaginably gigantic collection of data in the public interest and without doing too much collateral damage to the sifted and categorised populace along the way.

Update: A stark example of where the tyranny of the algorithm does real damage - software used across the US to predict future criminals and it’s biased against black people.

1 comment:

Chris Hennick said...

Have you tried asking the post office to give your street some sort of official alias? Maybe something somehow related, like Osiris Ave or 1515th Street.