The Black Box Society by Frank Pasquale
There’s a new book out, called The Black Box Society and written by Frank Pasquale, a lawyer focused on technology and a friend of mine. It’s published by Harvard University Press and it looks like this:
To be honest, when I first received it I was a bit worried that it would make my book, which I am utterly engaged in writing, entirely moot. After all, Frank and I had discussed his book and I’d seen earlier versions. I knew it contained information about racist secret algorithms in finance and tech, and there were also other issues in common with our two books.
Now that I’ve had a chance to read it, though, I’m not as worried. First of all, Frank’s book is aimed at a different audience, which is to say a somewhat more academic and technical audience. In particular his policy recommendations near the end of the book seem to be written for lawyers who know the current laws and need arguments to improve them.
Also, his focus is on secrecy itself as a means of power, whereas I focus on models as the object of interest.
I like a lot of what Frank says, and I think his metaphors work really well. For example, he talks about the early promise of the internet to expose information of all sorts, on powerful corporations as well as individuals. Then he talks about how reality has been a disappointment, and we’ve ended up with an internet that acts as a “one way mirror,” whereby powerful corporations can see into individual’s lives but those individuals can’t look back.
He also makes the important point that, when it comes to the NSA and other government agencies snooping around, while they might be legally prevented from gathering certain kinds of data about people, nothing prevents them from buying information and profiles from data warehouses like Acxiom, which can do the kind of collecting that they can’t. In other words, the data warehousing industry acts as a giant loophole in the set of rules protecting our civil liberties.
For another really interesting review of Frank’s book, written by a software engineer, take a look at David Auerbach’s Slate review (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg). In particular he has interesting things to say about the extent to which algorithms are intentionally evil (they’re probably not) and the extent to which engineers can fix problems (they probably can).
In any case, I recommend The Black Box Society, it’s a fascinating and important book.