Algorithms power transformative technology but also present many threats to users — which raises the question of how to prevent and regulate against potential disaster.
For technology users, particularly social media users, 2018 has been a year of awakening. The media began scratching the surface of the dangers of social media with the story of Russian parties influencing the U.S. election. Soon after, a slew of reports followed with details of how Cambridge Analytica used social media data to influence votes in both the United Kingdom and the United States. People were suddenly exposed to the dangers of how easily social media and the algorithms underpinning social platforms can be used to influence other users, and we’re now seeing how widespread the practice has become. Harmless, everyday actions performed by millions of users, such as taking fun surveys, had suddenly become tools for unscrupulous data miners.
The investigation into the Cambridge Analytica scandal was a high point for awareness of privacy breaches in the social media community, but it certainly was not the first. In February 2018, Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube employee, went public with his study on YouTube’s algorithms, which found extreme bias in relation to the 2016 election. The study found that 84% of videos recommended by the algorithm were pro-Trump, with only 16% pro-Clinton. Meanwhile, Twitter came under attack as a documentary by Project Veritas purportedly proved political bias in its regulation of its users.
The push for better regulation with regard to how algorithms work and how to protect user privacy has already advanced, with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) governing online data privacy and use of user data having gone into effect in May 2018. However, we contend that while these efforts have been aimed at regulating user data, efforts must be made to regulate algorithms themselves.
Algorithms Are More Than Just Social Media
The truth is, algorithms pervade our lives. They have existed in the systems that run and regulate our lives for decades, performing tasks from a national security early warning system to traffic control systems. More recently, algorithms have found their way into our cars, our homes, and now have tasks as varied as deciding how suitable we are as job candidates or helping to identify health issues.
As with social media, while these algorithms have delivered convenience and usability, they have also failed us.