Dozens Of Tech Experts Tell DHS & ICE That Its Social Media Surveillance And Extreme Vetting Should Be Stopped

from the bad-policies dept

Last week dozens of well known technologists sent a letter to Homeland Security arguing that Immigration & Customs Enforcement's (ICE) plans to use technology for "extreme vetting" is a really, really dumb idea.

According to its Statement of Objectives, the Extreme Vetting Initiative seeks to make “determinations via automation” about whether an individual will become a “positively contributing member of society” and will “contribute to the national interests.” As far as we are aware, neither the federal government nor anyone else has defined, much less attempted to quantify, these characteristics. Algorithms designed to predict these undefined qualities could be used to arbitrarily flag groups of immigrants under a veneer of objectivity.

Inevitably, because these characteristics are difficult (if not impossible) to define and measure, any algorithm will depend on “proxies” that are more easily observed and may bear little or no relationship to the characteristics of interest. For example, developers could stipulate that a Facebook post criticizing U.S. foreign policy would identify a visa applicant as a threat to national interests. They could also treat income as a proxy for a person’s contributions to society, despite the fact that financial compensation fails to adequately capture people’s roles in their communities or the economy.

The Extreme Vetting Initiative also aims to make automated determinations about whether an immigrant “intends to commit” terrorism or other crime. However, there is a wealth of literature demonstrating that even the “best” automated decisionmaking models generate an unacceptable number of errors when predicting rare events. On the scale of the American population and immigration rates, criminal acts are relatively rare, and terrorist acts are extremely rare. The frequency of individuals’ “contribut[ing] to national interests” is unknown. As a result, even the most accurate possible model would generate a very large number of false positives - innocent individuals falsely identified as presenting a risk of crime or terr

In short, this is the tech world telling DHS and ICE that its belief that there's a "nerd harder" solution to using computers and algorithms to sniff out terrorists is a load of pure hooey. It may be true, as Arthur C. Clarke once stated, that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," but the corollary does not apply: not all magical solutions can be implemented in technology. It's kind of ridiculous that actual technologists were needed to explain this to DHS, but that's where things are these days.

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Filed Under: automation, bots, dhs, extreme vetting, ice, immigration, social media

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  1. icon
    Zgaidin (profile), 22 Nov 2017 @ 6:21am

    Re: Pig. Leg. Wrong.

    While you're almost certainly correct in this case, Mike's point about Clarke's Law and it's reverse is still valid, and something to bear in mind as policy makers try to legislate uses for technology.

    As with any field of knowledge both broad and deep (say medicine and it's related sciences), the wider and deeper the field grows the more impossible it is for even an "expert" to know everything about the field. If you're a professional app developer, you probably know a ton about APIs, app dev languages, and the hardware and firmware in the products you develop for. That doesn't mean you know much more than any layman on the street about AI development, how to code a robust encryption algorithm, or design a new chip set. My ENT is a good doctor, but his knowledge of neurology is limited to whatever he learned in med school and his internship, and even that's at least out of date by 10+ years. He's not really qualified to make a neurological diagnosis or prescribe medicine to treat a neurological disorder. If, like these legislators, you're not a tech expert of any kind, it all looks like magic, and the temptation to believe that it can be made to do whatever you want is real. I'm not a tech expert, but I've been tinkering with computers as a hobby since 300 baud modems were the order of the day. Beyond setting up a new desktop for use and slightly more advanced troubleshooting that a clueless layman, my tech knowledge can most adequately be summed up as "there are some things current technology can't do." That's what my 20+ years of fiddling around with these machines has earned me, and I'm fine with admitting it, but these guys don't even have that going for them, which makes even their well-intentioned ideas (which I agree this is probably not) frightening.

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