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Is sorting a list of names racial discrimination?

December 21st, 2016 No comments

Governments are starting to notice the large, and growing, role that algorithms have in the everyday life of millions of people. There is now an EU regulation, EU 2016/679, covering “… the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data…”

The wording in Article 22 has generated some waves: “The data subject shall have the right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling, which produces legal effects concerning him or her or similarly significantly affects him or her”

But I think something much bigger is tucked away in a subsection of Article 14 paragraph 2 “…the controller shall provide the data subject with the following information…”, subsection (g) “…meaningful information about the logic involved…” Explaining the program logic involved to managers who are supposed to have some basic ability for rational thought is hard enough, but the general public?

It is not necessary for the general public acquire a basic understanding of the logic behind some of the decisions made by computers, rabble-rousing by sections of the press and social media can have a big impact.

A few years ago I was very happy to see a noticeable reduction in my car insurance. This reduction was not the result of anything I had done, but because insurance companies were no longer permitted to discriminate on the basic of gender; men had previously paid higher car insurance premiums because the data showed they were a higher risk than women (who used to pay lower premiums). At last, some of the crazy stuff done in the name of gender equality benefited men.

Sorting would appear to be discrimination free, but ask any taxi driver about appearing first in a list of taxi phone numbers. Taxi companies are not called A1, AA, AAA because the owners are illiterate, they know all too well the power of appearing at the front of a list.

If you are in the market for a compiler writer whose surname starts with J (I have seen people make choices with less rationale than this), the following is obviously the most desirable expert listing (I don’t know any compiler writers called Kurt or Adalene):

Jones, Derek
Jönes, Kurt
Jônes, Adalene

Now Kurt might object, pointing out that in German the letter ö is sorted as if it had been written oe, which means that Jönes gets to be sorted before Jones (in Estonian, Hungarian and Swedish, Jones appears first).

What about Adalene? French does not contain the letter ö, so who is to say she should be sorted after Kurt? Unicode specifies a collation algorithm, but we are in the realm of public opinion here, not having a techy debate.

This issue could be resolved in the UK by creating a brexit locale specifying that good old English letters always sort before Jonny foreigner letters.

Would use of such a brexit locale be permitted under EU 2016/679 (assuming the UK keeps this regulation), or would it be treated as racial discrimination?

I certainly would not want to be the person having to explain to the public the logic behind collation sequences and sort locales.

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