Government must come clean about algorithms, says privacy chief


The Dutch government must be more transparent about the way algorithms are being used to take decisions affecting its citizens, the head of the Dutch privacy watchdog said on Tuesday evening.

‘The government must be transparent about it, and make clear in what way your details are being processed and how these decisions are being made,’ Aleid Wolfsen said.

Broadcaster NOS said earlier on Tuesday that government departments, including the police, tax office and local councils, are using algorithms – basically a set of rules allowing computers to process information – to make predictions.

In particular, Wolfsen said there are fears that algorithms could strengthen discrimination. ‘The prejudices we all have can end up in computer programmes,’ he said.

‘If a decision is taken about you and you don’t know why, you cannot defend yourself against it,’ he said.

Student loans body DUO uses algorithms to ‘take correct decisions’ and has also experimented with using them to detect fraud, NOS said. Den Bosch city council is using them to ‘improve its services’ while the social affairs ministry uses them to make sure its inspectors ‘go about their work with the best possible list of potential law breakers.’

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Leiden University researcher Marlies van Eck told NOS she was shocked at how widespread the use of algorithms is. ‘Discrimination is inherent in this technology,’ she said.

For example, if the police stop people from a certain population group more often, for whatever reason, they are more likely to appear in police statistics, and that will affect the algorithm, allowing other potential criminals to escape under the radar.

The police say they use algorithms to identify ‘vulnerable people’ such as the victims of crime or child abuse, teenagers and young adults who risk becoming career criminals and people with mental health issues.

But it remains unclear what information police are using to make their calculations, the broadcaster said.

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