Dozens Of Tech Experts Tell DHS & ICE That Its Social Media Surveillance And Extreme Vetting Should Be Stopped

from the bad-policies dept

Last week dozens of well known technologists sent a letter to Homeland Security arguing that Immigration & Customs Enforcement's (ICE) plans to use technology for "extreme vetting" is a really, really dumb idea.

According to its Statement of Objectives, the Extreme Vetting Initiative seeks to make “determinations via automation” about whether an individual will become a “positively contributing member of society” and will “contribute to the national interests.” As far as we are aware, neither the federal government nor anyone else has defined, much less attempted to quantify, these characteristics. Algorithms designed to predict these undefined qualities could be used to arbitrarily flag groups of immigrants under a veneer of objectivity.

Inevitably, because these characteristics are difficult (if not impossible) to define and measure, any algorithm will depend on “proxies” that are more easily observed and may bear little or no relationship to the characteristics of interest. For example, developers could stipulate that a Facebook post criticizing U.S. foreign policy would identify a visa applicant as a threat to national interests. They could also treat income as a proxy for a person’s contributions to society, despite the fact that financial compensation fails to adequately capture people’s roles in their communities or the economy.

The Extreme Vetting Initiative also aims to make automated determinations about whether an immigrant “intends to commit” terrorism or other crime. However, there is a wealth of literature demonstrating that even the “best” automated decisionmaking models generate an unacceptable number of errors when predicting rare events. On the scale of the American population and immigration rates, criminal acts are relatively rare, and terrorist acts are extremely rare. The frequency of individuals’ “contribut[ing] to national interests” is unknown. As a result, even the most accurate possible model would generate a very large number of false positives - innocent individuals falsely identified as presenting a risk of crime or terr

In short, this is the tech world telling DHS and ICE that its belief that there's a "nerd harder" solution to using computers and algorithms to sniff out terrorists is a load of pure hooey. It may be true, as Arthur C. Clarke once stated, that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," but the corollary does not apply: not all magical solutions can be implemented in technology. It's kind of ridiculous that actual technologists were needed to explain this to DHS, but that's where things are these days.

Filed Under: automation, bots, dhs, extreme vetting, ice, immigration, social media


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2017 @ 6:59am

    Re:

    Oh, you don't have any social media accounts? Okay.

    You're the perfect target for the kind of attacker I mentioned above. All they have to do is compare "lists of people with social media accounts" to "lists of people" and note that differences. Sure, some of those in the diff will be there because the algorithm failed (although: it can be refined by using multiple lists) but a lot of them will be people just like you...who didn't have a social media account...UNTIL NOW.

    Nothing stops them from setting up one with your name on it. And even IF you notice, and IF you can reach someone at one of those sites, and IF they decide to take action, then it may still be too late to stop ersatz data associated with you from being vacuumed up.

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