Occasionally people (usually my fellow white men) yell at me to “stick to science!” Well, sticking to science is a luxury that white women and scientists of color can’t afford, and pretending scientists aren’t complicit in violence toward underrepresented groups preserves inequality. At the same time, some within the broad tent of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) actively perpetuate problems. My latest piece for SIAM News discusses one particular example — the ways in which computer scientists and other developers of code have helped increase racial profiling and police brutality — but many of the points apply more broadly to STEM. (Bonus: look for the Rage Against the Machine lyrics.)
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When Software Harms, What You Reap Is What You Sow
For SIAM News:
As of July 2020, the CalGang database contained the names and personal details of nearly 90,000 people in the state of California who are suspected of being in gangs or associating with gang members. Despite its stated purpose to provide law enforcement agencies with accurate intelligence information, audits and independent investigations revealed that the database was riddled with errors, falsified material, racial profiling, and other serious problems.
Databases and algorithms are ubiquitous parts of our interconnected world, but CalGang illustrates a major way in which they can fail people. If a streaming service suggests a movie that you do not like, no real harm is done; but if your name appears in CalGang, you may face consequences like increased police harassment or harsher sentences if charged with a crime.
“[Most of] the people creating these technologies are not affected in negative ways,” Seny Kamara, a computer scientist at Brown University, said. “But if you’re a young Black male growing up in Chicago or New York or California, you know that you may end up as a false positive in a gang database, and that affects your life in a completely different way.”