Book Review: Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book builds on the research in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism and Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, so I definitely recommend reading those two books first. I’m not alone in that, in one of the talks I’ve watched Benjamin give, she explicitly mentions those books as influencing her. I really enjoyed this book, it brought together ideas from my own master’s degree, including the complexity of how technology is used. In one class we specifically discussed the Moses’s bridges in New York (despite this being taught in the Netherlands), which were designed to exclude the poor by preventing buses from crossing the bridge. In this book she discusses this bridge and how it can pull in the very people that were expected to benefit the bridge design (basically a bus full of rich white kids went across after they came back from a trip to Europe, the driver hit the top of the bridge which resulted in 6 people getting seriously injured).

She modernizes these examples by describing how algorithms are created to approximate details about people, such as determining their ethnicity to provide “targeted services.” Due to historical redlining, the practice of creating white people only enclaves in suburbs and portions of the city (a Jim Crow era set of laws), the zip code has become a reliable indicator of ethnicity and race. She gives the example of Diversity, Inc., which creates ethnicity or racial classifications for potentially hiring companies. They will look at the names of people and assess their ethnicity, however due to the history of slavery, many African Americans have white sounding surnames, like Sarah Johnson, to “correctly” identify the ethnicity of Sarah, the company uses her zipcode to assign her race.

Overall, I found a lot of examples in this book very illuminating. Benjamin finds the approach to Design favored in Silicon Valley wanting and excluding, primarily focused on empathizing for making money, which in many cases is empathizing with whiteness. Furthermore, Benjamin argues that empathy can lead skewed results, such as body camera video providing empathy for police officers even when they are killing Black people for crimes which aren’t capital offenses or no crime at all.

As an engineer, I took this book as a warning. That we need to understand how data is impacting those around us. That we need to understand how data that might seem harmless to me, could cause serious harm to someone else. That algorithms that seem to be doing good, could instead be quickly turned into something bad. Facial recognition is a great example. Facebook tags people in photos without consent and this can be exploited by law enforcement. Furthermore, since facial recognition software is so inaccurate, it can misclassify a person as the wrong sex, the wrong person, or in extremely bad past cases, as an animal.

Furthermore, engineers have the responsibility to ensure our work is used to create more equity in the world. Benjamin offers a few different organizations that are working to ensure justice and equity for everyone. Maybe it’s time that software engineers/developers have a responsibility for this the same way a civil engineer must ensure a bridge is safe.

I recommend that anyone that works at a social media company read this. Anyone doing work for algorithms in banks, insurance, hiring, and housing really understand the fact that algorithms aren’t objective. They are as objective as our history. Our history hasn’t been objective nor equitable. We must change that.



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Book Review: Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I wish the people that created the Netflix Documentary The Social Dilemma had read this book, I believe it would have provided a great deal of context around surveillance. Through the context of reading about race, I’ve learned a lot about American history that I regret not knowing earlier in my life. This is one of those books that does multiple things at once. First, it teaches about Black history in general, not just Black people in America, but in Africa as well. Second, it teaches about the history of prisons and the very first prison the Panopticon. Third, it discusses Surveillance and surveillance technologies.

It doesn’t teach these as separate threads, though. It’s impossible to teach these topics separately. Even when reading White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, small parts of these topics were brought up. In Between the World and Me, these same ideas were brought up, just a shorter time horizon for the history.

The United States created law after law, mechanism after mechanism, to surveil Black people. According to Browne, this as soon as an African was captured, they’d be branded, sorted, and documented. Then they’d be surveiled in the slave ship, which was a truly horrific environment.

There was something about how Browne described the slave ship that hit home a lot harder than when I’d seen the ships before. Maybe it’s the Pandemic, maybe it’s my own allergies, maybe it’s understanding that they were locked in this miserable condition for 67 days!

Speaking of the pandemic, the right-wing out bursts against wearing masks is laughable considering some of the laws we implemented in the past to protect white people from Black people. There were laws in New York City, called Lantern Laws where any Black person had to have a lantern lit at anytime after dark. They weren’t allowed to be in groups larger than three people and had to have a candle lit at all times. If they didn’t, they could get 40 lashings (apparently it was reduced later to 15). 40 Lashings could certainly kill someone.

Ultimately, the book moves from the history of surveillance to present day, which draws a pretty straight line to what we experience now at the airport after 9/11. However, in the airport Black and brown people experience significantly more surveillance than white people. This can lead to ridiculous things like having an afro searched for bomb materials and statistically higher search rates for Black Woman than white women even though statistically white women are more likely to have contraband. Further, this extends to accepting Black people as citizens, as given in an example with a Canadian woman.

I believe this book is critical in understanding our Government’s response to the BLM movement, the obsessions with Antifa, avoidance of investigating right-wing terrorism, and our current surveillance state. I think anyone that’s working in the social media space or adtech space, should read this book. If you care about ethical technology, you need to read this book. Because if we understand this and address the problems outlined in this book, we address surveillance issues for everyone.



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Corporate Responsibility and Black Lives Matter: Put Money Where Your Hashtags Are

Over the past week I’ve seen a lot of blacked out squares with some semblance of corporate PR speak about honoring diversity and supporting #BlackLivesMatter. Leaders have sent out emails within their organizations explaining how the organization supports the movement and in many cases, this has actually come with some financial donation, like $1,000,000 to NAACP and/or ACLU. These are fantastic gestures. However, they often feel empty. This twitter video really highlights why.

Another reason these gestures feel less than sincere is that the businesses that are coming out and saying these things, often have significant contracts with law enforcement, the Border Patrol, FBI, or national intelligence organizations. For example, Amazon has put out comments around supporting BLM. However, their Ring subsidiary has contracts with at least 400 police organizations nationwide. In fact, they were talking about increasing this and adding facial recognition to the recordings as recently as January.

Furthermore, many companies provide discounts and negotiated rates with local government employees. This, of course, includes police forces. Apple is an example that has Federal, State, and Local Government discounts. We shouldn’t find this surprising, as these organizations have massive buying power together. Companies like Intel also get discounts from the Apple store. However, if Apple is serious about more than just Diversity and Inclusion, Apple should drop discounts for cities and states with high numbers of police brutality cases.

For organizations that really want to make a difference where Black Lives Matter is more than just a hashtag to jump on to show “solidarity,” the ultimate expression of this is through divestment of support for the police. Hold police organizations accountable by removing special treatment. Hold police accountable by cancelling contracts for cloud storage. Hold police accountable by eliminated contracts for facial recognition. Hold police accountable by cancelling IT modernization projects. Hold police accountable by cancelling consulting contracts.

Collectively, define the requirements for restarting engagement. These demands include reduction of police brutalities (ideally as close to zero as possible), elimination of Qualified Immunity (or significant reduction), prosecution of police officers for excessive force, including murder, restructuring of police union contracts to prevent bad cops from being rehired, reintroduction of community policing efforts, introduction of civilian management boards.

These are some ideas provided by the BLM community. I’m ultimately not the right person to be dictating these requirements. Companies that are claiming solidarity should work with Black community leaders to identify the criteria for working with police departments again. Any other than true solidarity through divestment is just more words. Words that may be true, but without action, those words are meaningless. Without forcing the police departments to make change through dropping support, nothing will change. By enabling infrastructure, you’re enabling police brutality.

Below are some more ideas from Killer Mike:

Depression, Trust, and Therapy

When you have depression, it’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to open up to people and explain to them what depression is, what it’s like to live with, and what the causes of your depression are. So, when you find someone that you can trust and feel like you can open up to, it’s a revelation. You feel like there’s someone in the world that you can truly be yourself around. Often this is a friend. Of course, you have to be careful not to over due the depressive talk, because you could bring them down and eventually push them away.

It’s understandable, when shits bad and all you talk about is your problems, it can eventually come across as whiney, especially if the other person is in a similar situation. If they have depression, they will get it, if they don’t have depression, they will be as support as they can for as long as they can, but eventually, they’ll say something like “get over it.”

So, if you’re lucky enough to have a good health plan (in the US) and a good salary, you might be one of the lucky people that can afford therapy from a licensed professional that will never say “get over it” to you. They will help you work through your problems and do so in a safe place. You can tell the right professional anything and they will help you deal with that. In the cases that they cannot help you, something’s outside their expertise (like gender dysphoria) they might refer you to a specialist in that field.

The important thing about all this, which helps to build trust with the therapist, is that everything about these visits is safe and secure. No one need know that you are visiting your therapist, but the people that you tell. However, if you cannot afford that sort of help, then there are apps that are supposed to help you. One such app is Better Help. However, if I was using it, I’d immediately stop. They share “anonymous” data with third parties, according to a Jezebel report.

One of the companies they share this data with is Facebook. Which is a huge red flag for me. Facebook, if you have an account (and to some extent even if you don’t) has a huge amount of data about you. It uses super cookies to continually track you even when you aren’t on the website, it buys data about people to build profiles, and it uses sophisticated tools to build shadow profiles for people that are not on their service.

I had Facebook for years, basically from the day it came to The University of Pittsburgh, up through 2016 election, so basically around 10-12 years worth of ever decreasing data. Even deleted, they probably kept something about my profile. Since they know that I don’t have a Facebook account, they are able to build a profile about me from data they acquire from other sources. It’s likely they scrape websites, like Good Reads (where I review most of my books) and loyalty rewards (I don’t have any at stores like Target) to build a profile of things that I’d want to buy. They sell ads, so they use this information to understand what someone my age might want to buy and to sell better targeted ads.

They have developed a profile about me, from anonymous data. This means, they have sophisticated tools to de-anonymize data. Given that, according to the article, they know when people are depressed and upset, they already have a set of users that they’ve flagged as candidates for mental health support. They have the tools to associate data from Better Help with an actual person. I don’t know about you, but I do not want Facebook to know anything about my mental healthcare.

This, to me, represents a vital break in trust between patient and mental health provider. I trust that the only people that know about my care are those I tell, my doctor, and my health insurer. I trust this, because it is the law. The law helps me feel safe and allows me to have better trust in both my insurer and my doctor. The law, HIPPA, requires YOU to consent to any data transfer and asks for it before it can even occur, every time. So, you might consent to share the minimum amount of data, but that data is more than sufficient to do harm, in the long term.

People seeking help are vulnerable. They can be preyed upon. Even a good therapist who doesn’t like dealing with a specific health insurer can make you feel preyed upon. A company as unscrupulous as Facebook will target you and take advantage of you. It’s dangerous and must stop. If you use Better Help, look for an alternative. If you use Facebook and you can stop, you should stop.

An Alternative To Just Resisting

One of the problems with simply resisting is that it seems passive. That there’s nothing else there. The Democrats need to take another play book from the Republicans now that they have some momentum on Healthcare reform. We all know that the ACA (aka Obamacare) is an imperfect law, as any law is, so there’s plenty of room for improvement there. Why not take advantage of that, but do so using their own requirements against.

One of the main arguments against ACA is that it’s expensive. According to Bernie Sander’s pushing Medicare to all would save individuals somewhere between just under $4,000 and just over $5,500 per year. That’s a lot of money for most people, in some cases over 10% of their income. One study is putting the savings for the overall economy at an absurd half TRILLION dollar saving. In one year. Let’s say that we’re less optimistic and say it’s 20% of that, so a cool $100 billion dollars. That’s 1/7 the amount of TARP, which was used to bailout the banks. When we injected $700 billion into the economy it saved it from the worst banking crisis we’d seen since the ’30s, injecting that much extra money into the economy at the individual level would have a huge multiplicative impact on the economy, much more than just pushing that money into a single location.

So my proposal, which is more modest than Medicare for all, would be to propose Medicare to everyone that makes less than < $30,000 year or maybe 20% above the minimum living wage in a city/region. Regardless, this would help the people that are protesting most loudly, the rural red states. The rest of Obamacare could stay the same, it would just really help the bottom of the population. We could even extend it to small business owners so their employees get a perk of Medicare and all those benefits without that employer needing to worry about their employee’s healthcare. The other benefit is that companies like Hobby Lobby wouldn’t be able politicize healthcare and would allow individuals to make decisions about things like birth control for themselves.

Immigration

ICE has been brutally cracking down on immigration the past few days. Democrats should introduce a comprehensive immigration reform that protects the country and aliens. I think that this is something that red states and red parts of blue states are going to be filling the pinch on. Apparently, farmers that supported Trump in California are now worried about losing most of their work force. This is a pretty valid concern. In Austin Texas, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted raids of illegal aliens by targeting their children. There are reports of their cars following school buses waiting for children to get off the bus to ask the parents for immigration paperwork.

While Arizona was enforcing their paper’s pleas law the state lost between $300 million – $1 billion in agricultural output, while losing out in another $147 million in cancelled conferences in the state. Arizona isn’t known as a agricultural powerhouse, if something similar happens in California, the entire country is going to feel the impact with massively increased food prices. Arizona’s Ag output is about $7.3 billion while California’s is estimated closer to $50 billion, if we lose 1/7 of California’s ag output that’s losing as much as all of Arizona (Az lost about 1/7 of theirs due to papers please). That’s a huge hit to that economy, ripple that out across the entire country and we’re potentially looking at a recession with food prices skyrocketing. Furthermore, many of these illegal aliens are actually paying taxes, of the estimated 11 million about 6.1 million pay taxes which equates to billions in federal and state revenue.

Democrats should instead offer reform that allows non violent illegal aliens a path towards citizenship or some sort of migratory work visa that is designed and so that the workers that want to use that program can go home when they are finished with the year’s work. This should guarantee access to the US for a number of years in such a way that people feel they are safe to go back and forth across the boarder. Partner with Mexico to vet the candidates for these types of visas to ensure that they were upstanding citizens in Mexico and that there are no gang connections. Furthermore, work to protect these migrants so that there’s no need for them to ever mule drugs across the boarders. Require that these workers get car insurance, licenses, and health insurance while they are here (or at least pay taxes for them to cover their portion of Medicare if the above passes). As for those that are already here, stay the course with Obama’s practices, which were more aggressive than past administrations, but still more human than what Trump is doing. Provide a path for citizenship for those that are here. Even toss in a requirement to learn English if you want to mollify the far right.

That still leaves the question of refugees and the Muslim ban. First, I think we need to make sure that the people we train here with PhD’s should be enabled to stay easily. This shouldn’t even be a question, we should in fact require it for any one that is trained in the US or require them to pay back the entire cost of their education immediately. This is what the Netherlands does – or at least Eindhoven University of Technology does. Additionally, if we’re concerned about too many foreigners taking these positions we need to incentivize American students to pursue higher levels of education so there are few spots for immigrants. I personally think that for the best result science and business needs diversity, so I’m for getting more people more degrees.

Beyond this though, I don’t really know what remedies to offer, someone with greater immigration reform experience should weigh in here, but generally, we need to accept refugees for crises we created.

Reigning in the Cloak and Dagger

It’s time we ended cover operations like the one in Yemen. They create resentment towards the US and since they are covert we don’t know what’s being done in our name. We need to end drone strikes and use diplomatic channels to address these concerns. Democrats should introduce bills that require increased oversight of these operations and reduce the executive power to conduct military operations without Congressional approval and/or a formal declaration of war. It is very unlikely that this will pass at all, but there are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle that believe there needs to be more constraints on what the President is able to do without approval or oversight. We have now been conducting these raids for 15 years and there has been no increased safety in the US due to them.

The other area where the same operatives are heavily engaged is mass surveillance in the US. Democrats need to introduce a bill that stops. Simple as that. It’s been shown not to work as with any large data set it’s possible to create find correlations that really don’t exist. It’s possible create sinister reasons for why a person is doing completely innocuous things.

I think if Democrats repeatedly introduce bills to attack these areas, they will get more and more support as the Trump administration continues to crack down. These sorts of initiatives will show they have a backbone and that they really are actually striving to make things better. Without at least these three changes, there’s no way that Democrats can mount a serious “resistance” to Trump. We’ve seen how loud and upset people are with Obamacare, the next step is to figure out how to do the same with the other two.