FTC Says Racist Algorithms Could Get You In a Lot of Trouble

Illustration for article titled FTC Says Racist Algorithms Could Get You In a Lot of Trouble

Photo: Bridget Bennett (Getty Images)

Tentatively excellent news! The FTC has declared that it is serious about racist algorithms, and it will hold businesses legally accountable for using them. In a friendly-reminder type announcement today, it said that businesses selling and/or using racist algorithms could feel the full force of their legal might.

Advertisement

“Fortunately, while the sophisticated technology may be new, the FTC’s attention to automated decision making is not,” FTC staff attorney Elisa Jillson wrote in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the agency “has decades of experience” enforcing laws that racist algorithms violate. They write that selling and/or using racially biased algorithms could qualify as unfair or deceptive practices under the FTC Act. They also remind businesses that racial discrimination (by algorithm or human) could violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

The effects of algorithmic racial bias and automated white favoritism spill out far beyond the types of products Facebook serves us. Racist algorithms have been shown to disproportionately deny Black people recommendations for specialized healthcare programs. They have priced out higher interest rates on mortgages for Black and Latinx people than whites with the same credit scores. They have drastically exaggerated Black defendants’ risk of recidivism, which can impact sentencing and bail decisions. They have encouraged police to target locations and arrest records which perpetuate further disproportionate arrests in Black communities. The list goes on.

Government use of racist algorithms makes the “selling” part especially important. The FTC can’t try the cops, but it might be able to go after a company that misrepresented its tool as race-neutral.

Given the endless churn of stories about the racist results of facial recognition, it could seem that the FTC is equipping itself to practically annihilate the technology. In an email to Gizmodo, an FTC spokesperson said that a seller could be guilty of “deceptive” practices if it “misleads consumers (whether they are businesses or individuals) about (for example) what an algorithm can do, the data it is built from, or the results it can deliver, the FTC may challenge that as a deceptive practice.”

That’s a big deal! Most algorithms that sort through personal data do deliver discriminatory results, and companies tend not to admit it. But this is complicated by the fact that it’s often hard to prove the results because companies also tend to avoid letting us look under the hood, forcing investigative journalists and researchers to piece together clues after the damage is done. (See most of the links above.)

That caginess would likely stall an FTC complaint against an “unfair” practice. The commission would have to perform the time-consuming chore of exposing proof that the algorithm itself directly harms consumers. (In the spokesperson’s example: “compromises consumers’ ability to get credit, housing, jobs”.)

Advertisement

In other words, no one knows the extent of racist algorithms’ damage, and the FTC urges businesses to hold themselves accountable or the FTC “will do it for you,” read: the FTC will come for you, even if you’re a small potatoes Honda dealership.

Businesses will still lie, they know, so the announcement also reminds us that the FTC filed a complaint against Facebook alleging, among other things, that the company knowingly deceived users about facial recognition. This resulted in a settlement of $5 billion, which the FTC had celebrated as “history-making” but Democrats complained was wildly insufficient to make Facebook feel any pain.

Advertisement

On a more hopeful note, the FTC could spread some of the regulatory responsibility around. The spokesperson noted that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also enforces the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice, too, could pursue discrimination cases.

Here’s hoping they follow through and drive a hard bargain. People are getting sick and locked up.

Advertisement

King Kong vs. Godzilla Never Hides Its True Victor, Even in Defeat

Atami Castle about to be smashed to tiny little pieces by Godzilla and Kong.

Atami Castle about to be smashed to tiny little pieces by Godzilla and Kong.
Screenshot: Toho/Criterion

io9 ReviewsReviews and critical analyses of fan-favorite movies, TV shows, comics, books, and more.

This week, Godzilla vs. Kong stomped into theaters and onto HBO Max to pit two of cinema’s most beloved giant monsters against each other (while some very annoying humans get in the way). It’s not the first time they’ve fought of course—and likely not the last. But the first time these titans clashed, no matter the outcome, there were only eyes for one hero.

Advertisement

While 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong is a much more diplomatic movie about its titular brawl, giving both stars moments for their respective fans to root for in a monstrous popularity concert, 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla—directed by Ishirō Honda, and adapted a year later for American audiences with new footage and dubbed dialogue by producer John Beck—plays out with an inescapable, unsurprising sense of bias.

Godzilla’s first cinematic appearance in seven years since Godzilla Raids Again strikes a stark contrast to his first two movies. If those were darker, almost horrifying commentaries on man’s hubris in the development of nuclear weaponry, King Kong vs. Godzilla’s central conceit is an altogether different one: at this point, Godzilla is an icon of culture. In particular, a Japanese icon.

The movie is enamored with a heightened sense of spectacle, not just for the titular battle, but baked into its very premise—at least, in Honda’s original cut. Beck’s dubbed iteration, worked on by editor Peter Zinner (with a new script by Paul Mason and Bruce Howard), reframes the events of the film more like a newscast, depicting reporter Eric Carter (Michael Keith) commenting from the events at UN Headquarters, as he, surrounded by scientists, watches an international crisis unfurl on the shores of Japan. In the original film, the premise is driven by the idea of Hollywood spectacle itself: Kong and Godzilla do not clash due to some higher power or need to state dominance, but…because of a TV ratings battle? You see—King Kong vs. Godzilla opens not with either of the titular monsters, but with a TV show dying on its ass.

undefined

Screenshot: Toho/Criterion

Frustrated that his pharma company is sponsoring boring educational science programs and not something exciting, a bigwig named Tako (Ichirō Arishima) tasks two employees, Osamu Sakurai and Kinsaburo Furue (Tadao Takashima and Yū Fujiki, respectively), with a bizarre mission. Having heard from a doctor in the pharmaceuticals industry of a mysterious giant creature on a small island called Faro, Tako demands that the two simply lug it back to Japan so they can use its discovery to goose sponsorships and TV ratings. Never mind that Godzilla (suit actor Haruo Nakajima)—who has been frozen in artic ice since 1955, only to be inadvertently awoken by a U.S. submarine—ravaged the country less than a decade ago, the allure of this new creature is immediately connected in both Tako and the audience’s minds in its alien, exotic nature.

Advertisement

The Faro island scenes remain distinctly uncomfortable to watch. Even with the added spectacle of Kong’s debut, fighting off a giant octopus, one cannot ignore Japanese actors clad in blackface to portray Faro’s populace, an island culture depicted as savage and lesser as they worship the giant ape. Nor that Sakurai and Furue, looking down on their island hosts even as they need them to find the mysterious “spirit” that turns out to be Kong (suit actor Shoichi Hirose), are clad in the colonialist shorthand of pith helmets and khakis. If King Kong vs. Godzilla goes on to embrace Godzilla as a uniquely Japanese monster, these moments don’t just serve as connections to the fetishized exoticism of Kong’s cinematic past in the west, but serve to other Kong, beyond something foreign but truly alien next to the familiarity of Godzilla’s brand of nuclear-infused chaos.

Advertisement

It’s a contrast that is picked up on throughout the film, as Godzilla and Kong make their way to the shores of, and then across much of, Japan itself. Kong’s journey is one of an almost comedic bent, strapped to a ramshackle barge covered in TNT and dragged back to be shown off by Tako to his sponsors—but ignored as Godzilla gets newspaper headlines, front page magazines, and is on the lips of every character we meet as he carves a destructive path across the nation. Kong’s presence in the country is an aberrance, the absurd and dangerous ploy of a media company driven by avarice, Godzilla’s is treated like a homecoming.

There’s a scene where, surrounded by the press wondering if Godzilla’s return would place Japan in turmoil, Akihiro Hirata’s Doctor Shigesawa simply declares that the kaiju’s return isn’t inevitable out of a sense of dread. Instead, it’s more so in an acceptance that, well, Japan is a kind of home to the creature.

Advertisement

undefined

Screenshot: Toho/Criterion

Even the response to each creature is given a different weight and sense of pride. Once again, Kong’s rampage across the country—sparked by Sakurai and Furue’s attempts to kill the beast when the Japanese Navy stops them from entering the country with it—is chaos tempered with a certain amount of comedy. Tako, Sakurai, and Furue race past JSDF officials time and time again to try and ensure they’re getting as much coverage of “their” monster as possible for the network. The JSDF’s response to Godzilla, meanwhile, is respectful, if not entirely effective; their plans to stop the kaiju, first with a massive, bomb-and-gas-canister filled gorge, and then, as he had been before, a hotwired power grid, are depicted as meticulously and precisely executed upon, orderly even in failure.

Advertisement

The evacuation response in the background by civilians is likewise orderly—until it’s disrupted by Kong, who, in contrast to Godzilla, is not steered off by the power grid but rejuvenated by it, hyper-charging him for the titular battle to come. If Kong’s rampage brings a sense of chaos to the proceedings, Godzilla’s, even at its most destructive, is presented as if the country is almost laying out the welcome mat for him, steering him in one direction as it clears the field of battle. So, by the time of the film’s climax, where Kong has been subdued only so he can be dropped into Godzilla’s proverbial lap so the two monsters can wipe each other out, you have the setup of this titanic spectacle that Tako’s avarice has craved: the home-grown (almost literally) hero, even if he is still much more of a villainous force here, against this wild, alien interloper.

Kong’s eventual upper hand isn’t given to him out of a superiority compared to Godzilla, but in an almost supernatural mysticism, revived from near-death by a stroke of lightning—this embodiment of primal nature against a being brought about by man-made horrors. Yet, even as Kong wins the battle—emerging seemingly alone after he and Godzilla crash into the ocean together—and begins to swim back to his home on Faro, our human heroes and the JSDF aren’t so much elated as they are concerned that surely, Godzilla must still be alive in spite of evidence to the contrary. Their thoughts are confirmed in the Japanese film’s closing moments, if not the American edit (in the West, the film’s end card is accompanied with just the cry of King Kong). The Japanese features the cry as well, but also Godzilla’s iconic, skree-onking roar, an indicator of his survival.

Advertisement

undefined

Screenshot: Toho/Criterion

Every step of the way, King Kong vs. Godzilla loves its “villain” deeply, even as it must find ways to overcome him. It’s no surprise then that, aside from its place in history as the first clash between cinematic titans, King Kong vs. Godzilla’s real legacy is that it saved Godzilla’s future at the Japanese box office. The movie is still Godzilla’s most attended at the box office, and its success not only inspired Toho to make more Godzilla films after his long dormancy, but also encouraged the studio to leverage its wider cast of cinematic kaiju to transform Godzilla not just from a villain, but a sort of anti-hero defender of the Earth, the king of the monster mashup that we still know and love him as today—even with his occasional lapses into the role of a giant-sized heel.

Advertisement

In the end, King Kong vs. Godzilla knows, deep down: Kong may have won the battle, but back home, Godzilla will always win the war.

Advertisement


For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.

Advertisement

This Surveillance Company Claims It Can Track Nearly Any Car in Real-Time

Illustration for article titled This Surveillance Company Claims It Can Track Nearly Any Car in Real-Time

Photo: HENNING KAISER/DPA/AFP (Getty Images)

A defense contractor that claims to have access to motor vehicle location data on a global scale says it wants to use that data to help U.S. federal agencies conduct more efficient spying and military operations.

Advertisement

The Ulysses Group, which offers “cutting edge operational and intelligence services, support, and equipment” to government clients, says it can access over 15 billion vehicle locations” worldwide every month. This data, which can be viewed “historically” or in real-time, should be used operationally by U.S. agencies, the company says.

A document obtained by the office of Sen. Ron Wyden, which was first reported by Motherboard and shared with Gizmodo, shows Ulysses claims to be able to “remotely geolocate” cars in “nearly any country,” with the exceptions of Cuba and North Korea. In the document, the firm explains how this might be useful to a government agency:

The Ulysses Group provides telematics based location intelligence, in both real time and historical formats. The data can be used to geo-locate, track and target time sensitive mobile targets, tip and cue other sensors, develop patterns of life, identify networks and relationships, and enhance situational awareness among many other applications. … Ulysses’ analysis, and existing access to bulk commercial telematics data, represents a revolutionary opportunity to collect and analyze real time data on mobile targets anywhere in the world without deploying into harms way – whether you want to geo-locate one vehicle or 25,000,000…

It’s been well-known for some time that as cars have become increasingly connected to the internet, they have also generated an ever-larger amount of data (this can include location, usage rates, internal media and communications preferences, external road conditions, and so on): Often, this data is being shared continuously with the automaker, with car-parts manufacturers, and sometimes with third parties. In recent years, there has been a race to sell and profit off this data, and a fairly complicated industrial ecosystem has emerged around it. A 2016 study by dreaded consulting firm McKinsey projects that, by the year 2030, the global revenue generated by car data may total anywhere from $450 billion to $750 billion.

At the same time, federal agencies have been enthusiastically hoovering up personal consumer data collected by private contractors like Ulysses, in an effort to augment their own surveillance and espionage operations. The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and countless other agencies have all been caught indulging in this trend. In the case of car location data, the spying capabilities it claims to provide are enormous, as Ulysses freely admits.

“Vehicle location data is transmitted on a constant and near real time basis while the vehicle is operating,” Ulysses states in the document. “We believe that this one attribute will dramatically enhance military intelligence and operational capabilities, as well as reduce the costs and risk footprint of ISR assets [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance] currently used to search for and acquire mobile targets of interest.” The company also notes that this data cache is only projected to grow: “By 2025 it is estimated that 100% of new cars will be connected [to the internet] at some level – each transmitted more than 25 gigabytes of data per hour.”

Ulysses, based in South Carolina, says it’s staffed by former military and intelligence officials and has been active since the early 2000s, according to the company’s website. Its president, Andrew Lewis, previously served in a number of high-level positions within the Department of Defense and other military positions. Online records show the firm contracted with the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) between 2016 and 2017. The company also claims to have worked with a variety of other agencies, providing services related to drones, aerospace, and financial data. A version of the company’s website, captured by the Wayback Machine, from July 2019 reads:

Ulysses has won multiple DOD awards to conduct financial targeting and exploitation for the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, and MARFORCYBER, including a 2016 – 2017 award by USSOCOM to serve as the only company that supported the command within the economic and financial warfare domain. Additionally, Ulysses has supported four different GEOINT focused contracts for NGA. Ulysses has a robust UAS vertical encompassing both fixed and rotary wing platforms that are designed and/or modified for operational use inhouse leveraging our rapid prototyping capabilities.

Advertisement

Maybe the worst thing about this whole story is that it’s not entirely clear where a company like Ulysses gets all its data from. Andrea Amico, the founder of Privacy4Cars told Vice that, due to the convoluted nature of vehicle data collection, there are a whole variety of sources where locations might be procured from: “the company that provides the map itself, for instance, would have access to it; the company that provides the infotainment system may have access to it; the company that provides the traffic data may have access to it; the company that provides the parking data may have access to it. Right there and then you’ve got five companies that are getting your location.”

A call to the Ulysses Group wasn’t immediately returned. A call to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers for commentary on this story didn’t garner a response either (the group represents the interests of car giants like Ford, Honda, Subaru, Hyundai, BMW, Chrysler and others, and has previously published a set of consumer data privacy guidelines for the industry). We will update this story if we hear back.

Advertisement