Algorithms that play increasingly central roles in our lives often come out of Silicon Valley, but the effort to hold them accountable has another epicenter: New York City. Last week, the New York City Council unanimously passed a bill to combat algorithmic discrimination—the first measure of its kind in the country.
Them Algorithmic calculator, waiting to be signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, formed a task force that will study how city agencies use algorithms to make decisions that affect the lives of New Yorkers, and whether any programs also appears to discriminate against people based on age, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or CITIZEN status. The task force’s report will also explore how to make these decision-making processes more accessible to the public.
The bill’s sponsor, Council Member James Vacca, said he was inspired by ProPublica’s investigation into it species bias algorithm used to assess the dangerous crimes of the defendants.
“My goal here is transparency, as well as accountability,” Vacca said.
An earlier, more sweeping version of the bill mandated that state agencies publish the source code of all algorithms used for “targeting operations” or “imposing punishment on people or police” and make them available. for “self-examination” by the public. In a hearing at City Hall in October, representatives from the mayor’s office expressed concerns that this order would threaten the privacy of New Yorkers and the government’s cybersecurity protection.
The bill is one of two moves the City Council made last week regarding algorithms. On Thursday, the committee on health and public safety held a hearing on public investigative methods, including the controversial tools used by the medical examiner’s office for forensics to analyze DNA samples.
As ProPublica/New York Times study explanation in September, an algorithm was created by the lab for complex DNA samples that were called into question by scientific experts and then crime lab employees.
The software, called the Forensic Statistics Tool, or FST, has not yet been adopted by any other lab in the country.
Council member Corey Johnson, chairman of the health committee, said two important results of our investigation: that the developers of FST have admitted a margin of error of 30 percent for a key input of the system, and that the system cannot consider that family . Members can share DNA.
New York City does not use the facility for new cases. But officials at the hearing said they saw no need to revisit the thousands of criminal cases that relied on the process over the years.
“Would you be open to reviewing cases in which testing has been done on very small samples, or are you completely confident in all the methods and science used on every case that comes through your lab?” Johnson asked the staff.
Dr. Barbara Sampson, who is the city’s chief medical examiner answered: “We are absolutely sure.
The algorithm’s source code was a closely guarded secret for years until a federal judge granted ProPublica’s motion to place a protective order on it in October. We then published code.
Defense attorneys testified at the hearing, criticizing the medical examiner’s office for what they saw as an unfair lack of risk in the development of its DNA tools.
Some have joined to write to the state inspector general in September, asking for an investigation into the lab and a review of past cases. The inspector general, Catherine Leahy Scott, has not yet indicated whether she will pursue it. Meanwhile, the New York State Commission on Forensic Science, which oversees the use of forensic methods at state agencies, has discussed the objections in executive session meetings. Those sessions are closed to the public, and board members are prohibited from speaking about them.
After the hearing, Johnson said he was concerned by the inconsistencies between the medical examiner’s testimony and that of the defense and decided to explore it further.
“This is a very, very, very important issue, and we have to make sure that the methods used are scientific, validated in appropriate ways, transparent to the public and to the opinions defense, and ensure greater trust in the justice system,” Johnson said. “And I think that’s what, hopefully, we can accomplish, by asking more questions — and thinking critically about the law in the future.”
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