Digital self-control: algorithms, accountability, and our digital selves

Social media Privacy Digital communications Algorithms Digital economy United Kingdom
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Digital self-control (report) 1.35 MB

Executive Summary

Algorithms are not new, but thanks to the digital revolution, they’re becoming part of almost every aspect of our lives. They’re indispensable in the online world due to the need to sort the huge volumes of information online in order to make the Internet the valuable resource that it is today. As the digital economy has grown, the reach of algorithms has extended. Today they’re responsible for almost 40% of stock trades in the UK. They fly planes for over 95% of the time the planes are in the air. And they may soon be driving our cars.

Algorithms are also expanding into new areas to help people make decisions about whether to offer an applicant a job interview, whether offenders will reoffend, and what social care provision a service user needs. Despite presenting a technological veneer of objectivity around their decisions, algorithms, and the data collection that powers them, are designed by people and shaped by human decisions.

We’re moving towards a society where access to both public and private services is mediated through algorithms. Algorithms are now entering increasingly controversial areas and making decisions with real implications for people’s lives.

These algorithms analyse vast amounts of data about us to generate a score which will decide whether we can access a good or service. In the public sector, under austerity, tightening budgets have led to a need to use decision-making algorithms to save on staff costs and help decide how to allocate funds and services.

There are currently thousands of digital profiles of each of us, collated from data trails we’ve left online. Acxiom, one of the largest data brokers on the planet, concedes that about 30% of the data held in each profile is incorrect. Given the poor quality of the profiles being built about us and the increasing use of digital profiles in the public and private sectors, incorrect decisionmaking could have series ramifications in our lives.

This report finds that as algorithms enter increasingly sensitive areas of our lives, we need to have meaningful accountability for those who create and deploy algorithmic decision systems, especially in areas where decisions have a significant impact on individuals. We also must ensure that we, as individuals, are not held accountable for things we didn’t do, or for being someone we are not.

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