Shining a light on the 'black box' - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Oct. 10, 2017 11:14 am

Shining a light on the ‘black box’

During Baltimore Innovation Week, a panel organized by the Baltimore Legal Hackers Meetup explored algorithms' influence in key facets of life.

Data. What's it say about you?

(Photo by Flickr user janholmquist, used under a Creative Commons license)

University of Baltimore School of Law professor Natalie Ram described an algorithm as a basic set of rules for a computer to use to accomplish a task. Algorithms are used in most digital platforms, like Tinder, in order to personalize results for a user. Most of these algorithms are made public, but some companies, like Google, keep their algorithms under wraps. In some cases, this is accomplished by sending input through a “black box,” or algorithmic system that obscures its internal mechanics, Ram said.

On October 3, the University of Baltimore School of Law hosted a panel on this phenomenon as part of Baltimore Innovation Week 2017. Moderated by American Bar Association Journal reporter Jason Tashea, University of Maryland law professor Frank Pasquale, FrontlineSMS CEO Sean McDonald, and Ram discussed how algorithms, artificial intelligence, and big data affects the average American.

The discussion centered on credit scoring services like Equifax, which has recently come under fire after falling victim to a massive data breach. The panelists broke down how credit scoring was essentially “unfair” only a few decades ago.

“In the 1960s,” Pasquale explained, drawing a graph on the whiteboard, “the companies that eventually became Equifax sent PIs to people’s houses to observe…if they have ‘messy houses’ or ‘effeminate hands gestures’…”

He was referring to the secretive acts scoring companies conducted when determining credit scores. Those eventually led to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, enacted on October 16, 1970. The FCRA was entitled “An Act to amend the Federal Deposit Insurance Act to require insured banks to maintain certain records, to require that certain transactions in United States currency be reported to the Department of the Treasury, and for other purposes”.

However, this act enabled a version of black boxing since it did not require total transparency, and companies like Equifax began developing algorithms and scanning their social media presences to predict customers’ behavior, making their files more detailed and less protected, Pasquale said.

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Providing such information to the public is what prompted the Baltimore Legal Hackers Meetup to organize and sponsor the event. Black boxing has made consumers vulnerable to such widespread data breaches as Equifax. The panelists prioritized informing the people of such covert operating systems that could endanger their futures.

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Kaila Philo

Kaila Philo is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist. She has written for VICE, Baltimore City Paper, and Red Bull’s Amaphiko magazine. She covers regional art and culture.

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