Before President Obama nominated him to serve as FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler was writing a book. Focused on the history of communications networks, the book was never finished, but last week the FCC published its shorter cousin: a 32-page e-book by Wheeler entitled “Net Effects.” This analysis of communications history shows that our most powerful telecommunications regulator is a more eager student of history, and a more curious observer of its lessons, than his professional life requires.
Despite its historical focus, the text does offer some clues for the future. Although he did not explicitly address diversity and inclusion within the communications industry or on the Commission’s own staff (suggesting that those issues are not yet front of mind), he finds strong historical support for the agency’s regulatory role (particularly over the network incumbents whose interests he once represented). In particular, he signaled a strong interest in universal open broadband, and a willingness to regulate in its favor. Wheeler describes himself as an “optimist without illusions” who will regulate where the market fails:
There should be an inverse relationship between competition and government action. The more there is of the former, the less there need be of the latter. The old monopoly model began with the assumption that telecommunications was a “natural monopoly” sanctioned by the government and overseen in great detail by that government. When there is effective competition there is less need for the government to substitute for it. . . . The response to those who complain about “regulatory burden” is the embrace of effective competition.
In a speech delivered Monday, Wheeler pointed to the blocking of the AT&T / T-Mobile merger as a positive example of such regulation, inviting his audience to “look at what happened[:] Following the signal that the FCC is committed to a competitive mobile marketplace, both T-Mobile and Sprint have been able to attract significant investment capital to build out their networks and increase competition in the mobile industry.”
Wheeler is, at least in his rhetoric, clear-eyed about the strong incentive that some networks have to avoid competition, writing that although it is “[a]propriately celebrated for its benefits, economic forces nonetheless naturally connive to limit competition.” Wheeler describes two “lessons of history” in this regard, citing Bell’s 20th century transition from insurgent telegraph challenger to incumbent telephone monopolist:
One such lesson is the blow-back that confronts the opportunities presented by network change. The economic incumbents threatened by the change often opposed its innovations. The other lesson is that insurgents eventually become incumbents and behave accordingly.
To remind himself (and his contacts) of these patterns, Wheeler has mounted in his office a 19th century broadside from horse-and-buggy operators, inveighing against a new rail line that would connect Philadelphia and New York:
Wheeler’s writing offers something for each side in the debate over broadband regulation, leaving his options open ahead of an anticipated DC Circuit ruling on the FCC’s existing Open Internet rules. He seeks to defend the “Network Compact between those who provide the pathways and those who use them,” and writes that
One component of access is universal service. If high-speed Internet connections have not been built to an area or are denied to individuals because of either their individual economic realities or the practices of the provider, then access has been effectively denied.
But while his written embrace of “universal service” in broadband suggests an openness to reclassification if necessary, Wheeler also writes at one point that “the elimination of circuit-switched monopoly markets certainly obviates the need for the old monopoly-based regulation of that technology.”
The federal government’s terrorism watchlists, which now contain nearly a million names, identify people for heightened scrutiny at airports and elsewhere. In particular, the “No-Fly List” bars listed individuals from boarding commercial flights in the United States. Since the list’s creation, accuracy and discrimination have been key concerns. Secrecy–both as to the list’s contents and its methods–has made anecdotes of misspelled names, profiling, and database errors hard to evaluate.
However, in a trial that began on Monday, a Malaysian professor, Rahinah Ibrahim, will be the first person to have her day in court for inclusion on the No-Fly List. Her goal is simple: to get “completely out of the system,” according to her attorney. She is testifying by videotape, after being denied permission to re-enter the country. She maintains that she has never had any link to terrorism, and none of the public evidence in her long-running court case suggests otherwise.
Several other cases raise similar claims, but this one is the first to reach trial. The first big question in the case is whether the government will even have to defend itself. The Administration claims that it cannot confirm whether Ms. Ibrahim is on the list, citing state secrets privilege. The presiding judge, generally favorable to federal prosecutors thus far, appears to be carefully considering the issue. “I don’t know the answer for sure on this one,” he remarked.
The case could be an opportunity to make the list more accountable and responsive to redress. In an opinion clearing the way for Ibrahim to sue, 9th Circuit Judge William Fletcher sharply questioned the list’s veracity. “Tens of thousands of travelers have been misidentified because of misspellings and transcription errors in the nomination process, and because of computer algorithms that imperfectly match travelers against the names on the list,” he wrote. The opinion also cited an internal DHS report that admitted opportunities for redress were slim: “With few exceptions, redress-seekers receive response letters that do not reveal the basis for their travel difficulties . . . or other steps they make take to help themselves in the future.”
Like any data-driven system, the government’s watchlists should achieve their goals in a manner that also treats people fairly. Court challenges such as the Ibrahim case can open a door for reform, encouraging national security policies that maximize respect for the lives and dignity of individuals, consistent with the need to ensure safety.
Amazon’s long-term plans to deliver packages with robotic drones prompted much excitement, debate, and joking online. But technologists and policy wonks agree that personalized airborne delivery remains more than a few years off. One reason is consumer skepticism about the technology. “Many people find drones unsettling. They understandably worry about being hurt or watched. How people come to see this technology will drive adoption and legal risk,” said Ryan Calo.
The Obama Administration plans to investigate the privacy implications of facial recognition technologies. The goal is to produce a voluntary “code of conduct” that businesses would be willing to follow.
The increasingly-competitive marketplace for pay-as-you-go “cloud” computing services may be “democratizing [access to] heavy-duty processing power,” which tech evangelists claim will boost economic opportunity for small businesses — not just big companies and government.
Big data is reshaping access to jobs — especially low-skilled and semi-skilled service jobs — across the U.S., and this month’s Atlantic cover story offers the best-yet analysis of the trend.
Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employment tests were popular for jobs at all levels, from store clerks to future executives. In the ’70s and ’80s such tests fell out of use: Anti-discrimination laws “made HR departments wary of any broadly applied and clearly scored test that might later be shown to be systematically biased. Instead, companies came to favor the more informal qualitative hiring practices that are still largely in place today.” These informal methods are also prone to many kinds of bias, and can be harder to police than systematic tests.
Today, new technologies have brought automated systems back to the forefront of hiring and promotion. This is especially true for hourly service jobs, where requirements are consistent but turnover is high. Xerox, for example, uses big data to color-code job applicants who want one of the 45,000 jobs in its 150 U.S. call centers, using software from a startup called Evolv.
Xerox [has] switched to an online evaluation that incorporates personality testing, cognitive-skill assessment, and multiple-choice questions about how the applicant would handle specific scenarios that he or she might encounter on the job. An algorithm behind the evaluation analyzes the responses, along with factual information gleaned from the candidate’s application, and spits out a color-coded rating: red (poor candidate), yellow (middling), or green (hire away).
Evolv’s system considers a huge quantity of data — not just the applicant’s answers on the test, but also things like which web browser he or she is using to take the test. When making its assessment, the company deliberately ignores some information in order to avoid discriminatory effects. (It’s not clear to what extent other providers of similar services do the same.) As the Atlantic piece explains,
The distance an employee lives from work, for instance, is never factored into the score given each applicant, although it is reported to some clients. That’s because different neighborhoods and towns can have different racial profiles, which means that scoring distance from work could violate equal-employment-opportunity standards.
Despite these risks, big data in hiring may yet turn out to be good news for traditionally disadvantaged job applicants: The Atlantic reported that “nearly all” of the people interviewed for its story find the data “lead[s] them toward pools of candidates who didn’t attend college—for tech jobs, for high-end sales positions, for some managerial roles. In some limited cases, this is because their analytics revealed no benefit whatsoever to hiring people with college degrees; in other cases, and more often, it’s because they revealed signals that function far better than college history, and that allow companies to confidently hire workers with pedigrees not typically considered impressive or even desirable.”
A growing number of states are building online voter registration tools. Online registration is popular with the young, saves states money, and increases the accuracy of voting rolls. These systems could also boost registration rates, which have slowed since 1972, (especially for the poorest) due in part to “[u]nnecessarily confusing and complicated voter registration procedures.” A recent report found that modernized registration systems have been “uniformly positive in a wide range of different states—large and small, red and blue—with different infrastructures.” The tools have room to improve — most require state-issued identification, which more than half a million young citizens of color may lack — but they are sensible steps in the right direction.
Unfortunately, several states are moving in the opposite direction, adopting draconian documentation requirements that make it harder for anyone to register, online or off. Kansas and Arizona have recently instituted “two tier” voting regimes, where people eligible to vote in federal elections can still be barred from state and local ones unless they furnish additional proof of citizenship, such a birth certificate, adoption record, or naturalization documents. (The Supreme Court recently ruled that that states may not add their own requirements for federal eligibility.)
“There is now a class of voters who can vote for president but not vote for [their state's] Secretary of State,” observed Julie Ebenstein, a staff attorney for the ACLU. The two-tiered regime “threatens to derail an effort by Democrats and their allies to increase voter registration and turnout among Latinos and the poor,” reports the New York Times.
These new requirements are intended to reduce voter fraud, but their primary effect seems to be stalling honest registrations. For example, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach reported that nearly one-third of Kansans who sought to register in 2013 were provisionally barred from voting in state elections due to shortfalls in documentation. On the other hand, Colorado’s Secretary of State (who once claimed that more than 5,000 undocumented immigrants had participated unlawfully in the state’s 2010 elections) recently conceded that out of more than 10 million ballots cast, his office could find just 80 that were cast by non-citizens (0.0008 percent).
The rules also weigh on the promise of online registration. Kansas has offered online registration since 2009 but, under the two-tier regime, paper-shuffling is back. The state’s registration site now invites users to “[m]ail, fax, email or hand deliver a copy of your citizenship document to your county election office.”
These battles will continue to unfold for years to come. Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, and West Virginia are currently implementing their own online portals. And the ACLU recently sued Kansas over its two-tiered system, claiming it violates the state constitution’s promise of equal protection.
A new report on Walmart’s privacy practices, released by the Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, and Sum of Us, concludes that the company may have created detailed profiles on as many as 145 million Americans. This data includes customers’ real-time movements inside the the company’s stores (at least for some locations), which are tracked using the Wi-Fi signals from smart phones.
Communications scholar Alice Marwick calls out tech industry leaders for a rhetoric of meritocracy that “denies the role of personal connections, wealth, background, gender, race, or education in an individual’s success. If, for example, women (or people of color, or gay people) are not getting venture-capital funding at the same rate as men, the myth maintains, it is due to their lack of ability rather than institutional sexism.” These thoughts are excerpted from her new book that explores “how deeply intertwined our lives are with the whims and biases of a handful of coders,” an issue we’ve also explored here at Equal Future.
Researchers at Princeton have announced plans for a new web privacy census that will measure online discrimination.
Cyber-stalkers often rely on the same tools that are marketed for family safety, such as software that tracks a phone’s location in real time, according to an Ars Technica report. The story quotes extensively Cindy Southworth of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, a leading expert on these risks. One key point is that the survey data on cyber-stalking trends has fallen badly out of date: a 2006 Department of Justice survey, conducted before the introduction of the iPhone, remains the most recent systematic study of the issue, according to Ars.
Since 2011, Progressive car insurance has offered Snapshot, a small monitoring device that drivers must install in their cars to receive the company’s best rates. The company offers discounts when the device reports that the driver brakes smoothly, drives fewer miles each day, and keeps off the roads at night — behaviors that, the company says, predict a lower risk of future accidents. It’s part of a broader trend of individually-priced insurance, where cost depends on individual-level predictions drawn from each person’s past behavior, rather than on the categories to which a person belongs.
A person’s future health, like their driving behavior, can now be predicted to set insurance prices. At an annual conference of actuaries, consultants from Deloitte explained that they can now use thousands “non-traditional” third party data sources, such as consumer buying history, to predict a life insurance applicant’s health status with an accuracy comparable to a medical exam. Models based on these data can “predict if individuals are afflicted with any of 17 diseases (e.g. diabetes, female cancer, tobacco related cancer, cardiovascular, depression, etc.) which impact mortality.” Deloitte’s model also incorporates the health of an applicant’s neighbors, at scales as small as two city blocks.
Pricing car and life insurance for each individual’s level of risk may sound fair, but it threatens to undermine the broad social benefits of our insurance system. “Most people are actually overpaying” for their car insurance, one industry analyst observed — and he’s correct, since a handful of drivers do bear much higher risk and suffer many more accidents than the rest of the driving public. But being at high risk does not mean that a driver is culpable, or that they should (or can) pay a higher price for insurance. For example, low-income and part-time workers are more likely to work the night shift, making it harder for them to qualify for Progressive’s best insurance rates. And, on the life insurance side, living in poverty is “inextricably linked” to greater health risk.
Seattle police have pledged to temporarily disable a new downtown Wi-Fi network with powerful surveillance capabilities. Rather than providing Internet connectivity to residents, this Wi-Fi network is designed to help law enforcement communicate — but it can also track the real-time movements of residents’ smartphones. The network was built by a contractor called Aruba, who advertises the system’s ability to track device locations (even when devices don’t try to join the network). Funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the new system was initially approved by the city council without public debate. The city’s change of course came after a news report raised public concern.
The network consists of boxes on utility poles, each of which broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal named for its intersection (e.g., “4th&University”). The boxes collaborate to form a robust communications system for city police, streaming video from surveillance cameras and squad car dash-cams.
However, the network can also track individuals’ devices throughout the area. Whenever a smartphone searches for nearby Wi-Fi networks (which many do constantly), it sends out a unique identifier. By tracking which boxes are nearest to the phone’s unique signal, the city’s network can track the device’s location over time. The network can also store extensive location histories.
These capabilities — and a lack of awareness about them — have civil rights advocates concerned. “We definitely feel like the public doesn’t have a handle on what the capabilities are,” said Jamela Debelak of the ACLU. “We’re not even sure the police department does.” When asked for details on the network, the Seattle Police Department replied that it was “not comfortable answering policy questions when we do not yet have a policy.”
Under pressure, the city backed down. “The wireless mesh network will be deactivated until city council approves a draft policy and until there’s an opportunity for vigorous public debate,” said a police spokesperson.
The story joins earlier examples of federal funds fueling technological upgrades at a local level, with deployment rushed ahead of public understanding or clear rules of the road. Seattle itself gave another example earlier this year, when the police department retreated from a hasty plan to deploy aerial surveillance drones.
Police in Boston are objecting to a new plan that will install GPS monitoring devices in their cruisers. As a lawyer for the policeman’s union explained to the Boston Globe: “This thing keeps a permanent record of where an officer is all day. If he stops to go to the bathroom, that stop appears on the screen. If he goes a mile over the speed limit, someone can question that. It’s quite an intrusion on people’s lives.” The union hasn’t objected, though, to Boston’s growing use of automatic license plate readers, which allow for the tracking of any car in the city.
Prof. Latanya Sweeney, a Harvard computer scientist who is among the world’s leading experts on privacy and technology, has been appointed Chief Technologist at the Federal Trade Commission. She will be the third person — and the third distinguished computer scientist — ever to hold this job, following in the footsteps of professors Ed Felten and Steve Bellovin. Prof. Sweeney’s pioneering work has shown how easily companies and government can recover personal information from purportedly anonymous data. More recently, she has studied racism in online ad delivery. She will advise the FTC on a broad range of technology and policy issues.
HealthCare.gov’s troubled rollout is having an especially acute impact on Americans of color. “[T]he vast majority of Southern states—where half of all blacks in the U.S. reside and [including] Texas, with the second largest population of Latinos in the country—have opted out” of creating their own state-based exchanges, leaving their residents to rely on the troubled federal site, reports Colorlines.
In New Orleans, citizen-run video surveillance is a fast-growing trend. Footage is shared with police, often through YouTube. Of course, the article notes, “the cameras do nothing for the low-lying, poorer neighborhoods.”