Algorithmic Systems, Opportunity, and Civil Rights - 2016 United States White House Report

CECILIA MUÑOZ - Director Domestic Policy Council

MEGAN SMITH - U.S. Chief Technology Officer; Office of Science and Technology Policy

DJ PATIL - Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Policy and Chief Data Scientist Office of Science and Technology Policy

May, 2016


Big data and associated technologies have enormous potential for positive impact in the United States, from augmenting the sophistication of online interactions to enhancing understanding of climate change to making advances in healthcare. These efforts, as well as the technological trends of always-on networked devices, ubiquitous data collection, cheap storage, sensors, and computing power, will spur broader use of big data. Our challenge is to support growth in the beneficial use of big data while ensuring that it does not create unintended discriminatory consequences.

The Obama Administration’s Big Data Working Group released reports on May 1, 20141 and February 5, 2015.2 These reports surveyed the use of data in the public and private sectors and analyzed opportunities for technological innovation as well as privacy challenges. One important social justice concern the 2014 report highlighted was “the potential of encoding discrimination in automated decisions”—that is, that discrimination may “be the inadvertent outcome of the way big data technologies are structured and used.” 

Building on these prior reports and the 2014 study conducted by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the Administration is further examining how big data is used in the public and private sectors.3 Specifically, we are examining case studies involving credit, employment, education, and criminal justice to shed light on how using big data to expand opportunity has the potential to introduce bias inadvertently that could affect individuals or groups. As discussed in a report released by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) earlier this year, big data provides opportunities for innovations that reduce discrimination and promote fairness and opportunity, including expanding access to credit in low-income communities, removing subconscious human bias from hiring decisions and classrooms, and providing extra resources to at-risk students.4 However, the FTC also emphasized the need to prevent such technologies from being used to deny low-income communities credit, perpetuate long-standing biases in employment, or exclude underserved communities from other benefits and opportunities.

This report examines several case studies from the spheres of credit and lending, hiring and employment, higher education, and criminal justice to provide snapshots of opportunities and dangers, as well as ways that government policies can work to harness the power of big data and avoid discriminatory outcomes. 

These are issues that strike at the heart of American values, which we must work to advance in the face of emerging, innovative technologies.

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