There are other features of algorithmic prisons that a latter-day antagonist in a tale by Kafka might have dreamed up. A consumer or job seeker might know only that he has trouble getting credit or a job interview. What he may not know is that the bars of an invisible prison are keeping him from reaching his goal.
The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau lists more than 40 consumer-reporting companies. These are services that provide reports for banks, check cashers, payday lenders, auto and property insurers, utilities, gambling establishments, rental companies, medical insurers, and companies wanting to check out employment history. The good news is that the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires those companies to give consumers annual access to their reports and allows a consumer to complain to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau if he is being treated unfairly.
Good luck with that.
Even if an algorithmic prisoner knows he is in a prison, he may not know who his jailer is. Is he unable to get a loan because of a corrupted file at Experian or Equifax? Or could it be TransUnion? His bank could even have its own algorithms to determine a consumer’s creditworthiness. Just think of the needle-in-a-haystack effort consumers must undertake if they are forced to investigate dozens of consumer-reporting companies, looking for the one that threw them behind algorithmic bars. Now imagine a future that contains hundreds of such companies.
A prisoner might not have any idea as to what type of behavior got him sentenced to a jail term. Is he on an enhanced screening list at an airport because of a trip he made to an unstable country, a post on his Facebook page, or a phone call to a friend who has a suspected terrorist friend?
Finally, how does one get his name off an enhanced screening list or correct a credit report? Each case is different. The appeal and pardon process may be very difficult—if there is one.
It is impossible to fathom all the implications of algorithmic prisons. Yet a few things are certain: Even if they do have great economic value for businesses, and even if they do make our country a safer place, as they continue to proliferate, many of us will be injured, seriously inconvenienced, or experience great frustration as a result.
Even if we all believed algorithmic prisons present a serious threat to individual freedom, it would be difficult to come up with a reasonable solution to the problems they create.
Personally speaking, I'd favor requiring all companies to destroy within, say, 48 hours, all data collected about me unless I have given explicit permission otherwise. I would also prohibit the sale of my personal information or its use for advertising.
Well, that is a nice idea but it is fraught with problems. Under those rules, accurate credit reports would be impossible. And I would want law enforcement agencies to have access to all that information subject to the right restrictions and oversight. If the data is destroyed, that would be impossible.
What is clear is that the consumer protections in place at the moment do not suffice. An additional a set of carefully constructed restrictions is required. Being held in any number of algorithmic prisons is a scenario I for one do not want to be caught up in. And I doubt I am alone.