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ICE's 'Extreme Vetting' Software Worries Tech Experts

by Countable | 11.17.17

What’s the story?

The Department of Homeland Security plans to screen immigrants and visa applicants with predictive "extreme vetting" software.

"Over the summer," the AP explained, “DHS published a ‘statement of objectives’ for a system that would use computer algorithms to scan social media and other material in order to automatically flag undesirable entrants — and to continuously scan the activities of those allowed into the U.S.”

The project, dubbed the "Extreme Vetting Initiative," would use artificial intelligence (AI) to help determine whether an immigrant “intends to commit criminal or terrorist acts” or is more likely to become a “positively contributing member of society.”

On Thursday, an alliance of 54 computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and other experts in automated decision-making sent a letter to DHS expressing "grave concerns regarding Immigration & Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) proposed ‘Extreme Vetting Initiative.’"

Also on Thursday, a coalition of civil rights groups launched a petition urging IBM to avoid working on the program.

Why does it matter?

In their statement of objectives, DHS wrote that the purpose of the Extreme Vetting Initiative is to "establish an overarching vetting contract that automates, centralizes and streamlines the current manual vetting process while simultaneously making determinations via automation if the data retrieved is actionable."

"ICE," they wrote, “must develop processes that determine and evaluate an applicant’s probability of becoming a positively contributing member of society as well as their ability to contribute to national interests in order to meet the [Executive Orders] outlined by the President … including ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States’.”

In their letter to DHS, the dissenting researchers called the plan "neither appropriate or feasible."

"Simply put, no computational methods can provide reliable or objective assessments of the traits that ICE seeks to measure. In all likelihood, the proposed system would be inaccurate and biased."

The technology experts – hailing from academia and tech firms such as Google and Microsoft – said that current AI isn’t capable of determining whether an individual will "contribute to the national interests" or become a “positively contributing member of society.”

"Neither the federal government nor anyone else has defined, much less attempted to quantify, these characteristics," the researchers wrote. “Algorithms designed to predict these undefined qualities could be used to arbitrarily flag groups of immigrants under a veneer of objectivity.”

However, Jacob Shapiro, a Princeton University politics professor and president of investigative analytics firm Giant Oak, told AP that the effectiveness of the vetting system would depend on how it’s crafted.

"There are many ways one could meet that statement of objectives, some of which would make the system fairer, more equitable and faster for those seeking to immigrate," Shapiro said. “But some of which could be biased and unfair, as any algorithm can be.”

Shapiro had joined representatives from IBM, LexisNexis, Deloitte and others at DHS’ summer informational meeting about the Extreme Vetting Initiative. It was IBM’s attendance at that meeting that led to recent calls for a boycott against the tech company.

IBM said this week that its attendance was routine, and not indicative of plans to work with DHS in developing a program.

"As there is no active project being proposed, it is premature to say whether there is even an opportunity that IBM would consider pursuing," said IBM spokesman Ian Colley.

Christopher Padilla, IBM’s vice president of government affairs, went further, saying in an email that the company "would not work on any project that runs counter to our company’s values, including our long-standing opposition to discrimination against anyone on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion."

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the petitions and letters, President Donald Trump remains committed to his campaign promise of "extreme vetting." Following the October 31 truck attack in New York City, Trump tweeted:

What do you think?

Are there "many ways one could meet that statement of objectives"? Or do you believe “no computational methods can provide reliable or objective assessments of the traits that ICE seeks to measure”? Hit Take Action, tell your reps, then share your thoughts below.

— Josh Herman

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(Photo Credit: blossomstar / iStockphoto)

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