Reports from The Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference

May 24, 2008

Two reports by Wired’s Ryan Singel from the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference held this week in New Haven, CT has some tidbits that may be of some interest…

Computers deciding humans’ fate… poorly.

This article from yesterday (22-May-2008) is about a panel discussing how computers are making decisions about people.

What happens when Google’s AdSense reads an email from your boyfriend telling you it’s just not working out, and AdSense is smart enough o display ads suggesting a good therapist or a dating site? Is it possible to say then that AdSense is actually reading your email?

And if so, could AdSense at that point be considered a legal agent, capable of breaking wiretapping laws?

And, that intelligence raises other liability questions for companies like Google or ISPs that begin trying to examine and filter the traffic that flows through their pipes,…

No fate but what we make for ourselves? Our ever-growing dependence on computers in our lives and jobs has now reached a whole new level of misguidance. It’s not that computers themselves are making important decisions, but they are all too offen making the WRONG decisions, based on what’s being reported with Colorado’s public benefits system:

(Danielle) Citron cited Colorado’s public benefits computer system that judged whether people were eligible for Medicaid and food stamps.

For more than three years, the system asked applicants questions and spit out decisions. Only the system had more than 900 incorrect policy decisions built into its code.

The result: Bad decisions, with no human oversight. And the panel expects the problem to worsen as more decisions are made by computers with less human intervention, unless an open-source solution is implemented where the policies in the system’s coding can be checked for compliance.

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ISPs engaged in content filtering may be committing a felony.

Hopefully, you noticed that line about Google’s AdSense system being able to break wiretapping laws. Paul Ohm, a University of Colorado law professor and a former federal computer crimes prosecutor, claimed that Comcast, AT&T, and Charter Communications may actually be breaking the law by sniffing data packets:

University of Colorado law professor Paul Ohm, a former federal computer crimes prosecutor, argues that ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T and Charter Communications that are or are contemplating ways to throttle bandwidth, police for copyright violations and serve targeted ads by examining their customers’ internet packets are putting themselves in criminal and civil jeopardy.

These schemes all seem to violate the Wiretap Act, a federal statute banning eavesdropping that comes with criminal and civil penalties. That law has some exceptions for service providers to monitor content, but only when necessary to deliver service, or to protect the company’s “rights and property.”

No immunity for you, Big Brother! Even while king Duh’bya is pushing retroactive immunity for telcos who assisted with his criminal/unconstitutional domestic spying program (which even John McCain supports), the system administrators may still face criminal charges according to Ohm:

“Not only is this a five-year felony, it also has individual accountability,” Ohm said. “The sys admin could be sued individually and prosecuted individually If you are asked by your manager to go and do this kind of monitoring, you yourself may be legally exposed.”

The company gets immunity, the sysadmin gets screwed. Welcome to corporate America.

This post has been filed under News as Cyberpunk by Mr. Roboto.

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