Secret sauce and sentencing? Say it isn’t so!

Could you spend a long time in prison due to a software bug and not have the right to examine the software? Possibly.

One of the things that we in technology understand is that we make mistakes, a truth we don’t like to admit to customers.  What happens, however, when a mistake can lead to tragic consequences?

Yesterday’s New York Times reports about a case that the U.S. Supreme Court may soon hear, involving a man who received a six year jail sentence, in part due to a computer program.  The software known as Compas was supposedly developed by Northpointe Inc. (although a search seems to redirect to a Equivant) to provide a risk assessment of a person’s reentry into society.  Such a data-driven analysis is vaguely reminiscent of the movie, Minority Report.  In this case, the defendant Eric L. Loomis was not allowed to examine the software that assessed that he was a significant risk to the community, even though at least one analysis showed that the software may be programmed with some form of racial bias.  The company argues that the algorithm used to make the sentencing recommendation is proprietary, and so should not be subject to review, and that if they release their algorithm to scrutiny they will essentially be giving away their business model, and they may have a point.  Patents on such technology may be flimsy, and they eventually do come to a halt.  To protect themselves, they make use of another legal tool, the trade secret, which has no fixed term of protection.

One can’t say that a mistake is being made in the case of Mr. Loomis, nor can one authoritatively state that the program is formally correct.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court argued creatively that much like college admissions, so long as the software is one input combined with others, the software can be used.  Is it, therefore, any different from a potentially flawed witness giving evidence?  The question here is whether those who wrote the software can be cross-examined, to what extent they may be questioned, and whether the software itself can be examined.  Mr. Loomis argues that to deny his legal team access to the source is a violation of his 14th Amendment right to due process.

We know from recent experience that blind trust in technology, and more precisely, those who create and maintain it, can lead to bad outcomes.  Take for instance the over 20,000 people whose convictions were overturned because a chemist falsified hair analysis results, or other examples where the FBI Crime Lab just flat got it wrong.  Even Brad D. Schimel, the Wisconsin attorney general, conceded before the appeals court that, “The use of risk assessments by sentencing courts is a novel issue, which needs time for further percolation.”  But what about Mr. Loomis and those who may suffer tainted results if there is a software problem?

While the Supreme Court could rule soon on the matter, they will only have very limited avenues, such as permitting or prohibiting its use.  Congress may need to get involved in order to provide other alternatives.  One possibility would be to provide the company some new intellectual property protection, such as an extended patent with additional means of enforcement (e.g., higher penalties against infringement or lower thresholds for discovery) in exchange for releasing the source.  Even if they do, one question would be whether or not defendants could then game the system so as to score better on sentencing.  How great a risk that is we can’t know without knowing what the inputs to the algorithm are.

It is probably not sufficient for the defendant and his legal teams to have access to the source, precisely because more research is needed in this field to validate the models that software like Compas uses.  That can’t happen unless researchers have that access.

Finding REAL News as Opposed to Fake News

Here are three simple tests to determine whether a site is a trustworthy news outlet. Are there multiple sections? Does it have multiple news bureaus? Does the site post corrections?

The great New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.  Unfortunately, our democracy is being undermined by a combination of an epidemic of fake news and people being willing to believe the drivel.

What, then, are trustworthy news outlets?  To start with, they have to have paid reporters.  Determining the truth requires investigation with feet on the ground.  It requires document searches, interviews, and research.  That costs money.

Still, a well funded propaganda outfit could pay (or claim to pay) for “reporters”.  How to tell the difference?  Be suspicious of any site is primarily focused on national politics or any single issue.

Here are a three tests to guide someone as to whether a news outlet is likely legitimate for daily consumption.  The tests themselves aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty good.

1. Does the outlet have many news bureaus?

A real newspaper will have at least one regional bureau for the region they are covering, and will often have an additional bureau for a state capital or for Washington.  Fake news sources may not have any bureaus.  A simple test is to type the name of the site and then “news bureaus” into a search engine and examine the results.  Note that a regional paper will tend to have only a few bureaus outside their region.  That’s okay, so long as they stick to news where they have those bureaus and more importantly reporters.

2. Does the outlet have multiple unrelated sections?

Real news sources will have sections such as weather, sports, obituaries, arts, finance, and region, as opposed to just politics.  They may not have all of these sections: for instance, the Wall Street Journal doesn’t have a weather section, but their finance section is unparalleled.

3. Does the outlet ever publish corrections?

Even if the answer to the first two questions is “yes”, no one is perfect.  But a good news outlet will recognize their imperfections and always seek to report the truth, no matter how embarrassing it may be.  A good measure of an outlet’s trustworthiness is how regularly they correct themselves.

Let’s Test

Given these parameters let’s see whether a web site is a good source for news.

Source Multiple Bureaus? Unrelated Sections? Corrections?
The New York Times Multiple, throughout New York, US, and the world NY region, sports, weather, obits, arts Regularly at the bottom of an article online, or in a section in paper.
Fox News Multiple affiliates Sports, weather, numerous regions Not too often.
Breitbart Four bureaus no Very rarely
Wikipedia No Yes (vast) Entries are continually edited
The Daily Caller No No Never
NPR Many regional affiliates along with international bureaus Numerous Regularly online and on radio
The Wall Street Journal Strong presence in financial capitals Finance, Travel, even some Sport Regularly at the bottom of articles
Politico Primarily national, with a few state and international bureaus No Very Rarely

Trust, of course, is not a binary.  That’s why it’s important to get information from multiple sources, maybe not every day, but regularly.  Also, just because something is not marked as a trustworthy news outlet doesn’t mean their lying.  It does however, mean, that they’re something other than a trustworthy news outlet.  A blog, perhaps, or an analysis site.  Wikipedia is an interesting case because nobody gets paid, but the information tends to be reasonably trustworthy (or at least transparent).

All of this doesn’t get people off the hook from using their common sense.  RT would easily pass the above tests, and yet they are a well known and well funded propaganda arm of Vladimir Putin.  Probably not a good news source.  Most blogs aren’t so well funded.

The president made a morally bankrupt decision in banning refugees

Someone asked me on Facebook what my problem was with the “Temporary Ban” that President Trump imposed. I thought I would go into some detail.

What Has Happened?

First, how does the President have this authority in the first place?  Federal law states that he may suspend travel of entire classes of people that he may state and for a period of time such as he may determine.  Here’s what 8 USC § 1182(f) states:

Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.

The courts will determine if this is sufficient power, and President Trump’s order does quote other laws.  The key point is that Congress envisioned the need for the president to act quickly.

The meat of the order that has caused all the chaos is as follows:

I hereby proclaim that the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants and nonimmigrants, of such persons for 90 days from the date of this order (excluding those foreign nationals traveling on diplomatic visas, North Atlantic Treaty Organization visas, C-2 visas for travel to the United Nations, and G-1, G-2, G-3, and G-4 visas).

For clarity,  C-2 and G-1, G-2, G-3, and G-4 visas are used by diplomats and their families (you can find all the visa categories here). In other words, excluding those visas, in the general case, all other non-citizens who hold passports from the seven countries in question are barred from entering the United States, whether they are visitors or resident aliens.

There are a few exceptions:

(g) Notwithstanding a suspension pursuant to subsection (c) of this section or pursuant to a Presidential proclamation described in subsection (e) of this section, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security may, on a case-by-case basis, and when in the national interest, issue visas or other immigration benefits to nationals of countries for which visas and benefits are otherwise blocked.

This means that the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security can update the rules.  There is no Secretary of State at the moment.  This leaves the Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.  This apparently happened over the weekend, according to some reports.

The text of the order then has several references to people fleeing religious persecution, such as the following:

Upon the resumption of USRAP admissions, the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.

The majority religion of each of the countries listed in the ban is Islam.  What this rule states is that if you are a woman persecuted for wearing not wearing a head scarf and happen to be Christian or Jewish or Buddhist, you get priority.  If you are Muslim you are out of luck.

I have, then, three objections to the presidential order.

1. Callous Disregard for Human Life

The way it was implemented stranded many people thousands of miles away from their homes and loved ones, and in some cases leaving some who were visiting a foreign country in a position where they would be forcibly returned to a “home” country that would put their lives at risk.  How might this happen? Imagine a man who was born in one of the countries “of concern” (say, Iran) but departed as a political refugee to England.  Then he moved to the United States, because he married an American woman.  His home, his wife, and perhaps children are in the United States.  If he went back to England, or worse, to some other country, last week to visit a sick friend or relative, he would not have permission to return to the United States, and he wouldn’t have permission to remain in the UK.  That means that he would be at risk of being sent back to Iran.  The original order did not take people like this man into account.  Even to this moment, if he does not yet have a green card (that takes a year or two), he would not be able to get back home.  Even at relatively low probabilities of this happening with any one individual, The Law of Large Numbers means that a case like this has almost assuredly happened.  Perhaps many.

2. Made Up Threat

President Trump wasn’t responding to a real threat. The Wall Street Journal (no liberal bastion) analyzed this in depth and found that of  “180 people charged with jihadist terrorism-related crimes or who died before being charged, 11 were identified as being from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Sudan or Somalia”.  Moreover, in the past 24 hours, it’s become clear that the president acted without proper input from his Secretary of Homeland Security. And so, this was, as my friend and columnist Bruce Schneier coined the term years ago, Security Theater.

A decision that has no upside tradeoff that harms others is, by definition, morally bankrupt. I conclude that Trump is therefore morally bankrupt.

3. Religious Bigotry

I wrote at the top that I had three objections. The third objection is that the ban, as written, has the tinge of bigotry, because one religion in particular is disfavored – Islam.

Conclusions

There may be times when we need to suspend travel to the United States in a hurry. Imagine what would happen if there were a rampant and dangerous pandemic. The president needs to have the authority to protect the country in those sorts of circumstances. We need to be able to trust that the president will use his authority in a moral and responsible way. He didn’t do that here. Far from it. In this case he acted in callous disregard for human life.  The president abused his authority.

On criticizing President Trump

I’ve have been debating with friends about how best to deal with the new president and his administration.  Some say, “Give him a chance,” while others think he’s already gone too far.  A former president made the point far better than I could have, and so I’m simply going to quote him:

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.

Teddy Roosevelt, in a letter to the Kansas City Star, 18 May 1918

 

Hilary Clinton: A little improvement over making America break again

HIllary ClintonMany of us have experienced loss in our lives, and we get hit with the cruel irony that we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone.  We Americans like complaining.  To be sure there is plenty to complain about.  You have your own list; I won’t write one for you. But things can get a lot worse for Americans than they are.

Donald Trump looks up to President Putin and envies China, because he sees an uncontested leader and hunger to win, regardless of rules, respectively.  But that doesn’t mean we want to live in those countries, where people are subject to arrest without cause, where one cannot say what wants to say.  These are countries that operate by the rule of man (and I do mean “man”)  and not the rule of law, where might makes right, and where the ends justify the means.  Putin took the Crimea because he could.  He imprisoned and poisoned his opposition because he could.  He has interfered with an American election because he could.  China violates intellectual property rules and builds islands in the Pacific because they can.  These are the ones Trump looks up to.

The American ideal is different.  We don’t believe in kings, and we surely do not believe in thugs.  We like our freedom, where government acts on the will of the People and not the will of an individual, and where it is constrained not only by the People, but by those who we elect through their oaths to uphold the Constitution, a document that guarantees freedom and fairness, that a person won’t be treated different because of  sex, race, or religion.  Our ideal extends the Constitution to cover other innate characteristics, such as sexual orientation.  Fairness is something we hold dear.

I do not believe that Donald Trump understands any of this.  He has spent his life cheating people out of money.  To him, the ends will always justify the means.  To him, the art of the deal is a matter of deceit, and knowing when to violate its terms.  And he does so as long as he can get away with it.  An agreement to him only binds him until he finds it inconvenient.  Donald Trump will never deliver on his promises, and we know this because of all the broken promises of his past.  He is vindictive, and spews hatred towards others.  He does not know how to delegate responsibility, and he does not know how to accept responsibility for his mistakes.  According to Trump, he’s never made a mistake.

Hillary Clinton lacks the charisma of her husband.  She is not a visionary like Bernie Sanders.  She is an incrementalist.  She is a policy wonk, and she’s a bit nerdish.  She will be challenged by a vociferous and resentful opposition.  Under a President Hillary Clinton we will not see a Democratic House of Representatives.  That will never be her mission.  What we will see is steady leadership.  Mostly status quo.  Status quo means that we get mostly what we have.

And we have quite a lot.  We have freedom.  We have a functioning, if imperfect, support infrastructure.  We have an innovative society.  We have democracy.  We have checks and balances.  We have the right to practice whatever religion we want, so long as we don’t hurt others.  Under a President Clinton we would have humility in leadership, and someone who is serious about trying to take a great America and make it better; not by a lot, but at least in the right direction.  She is the type that will work to fix the potholes and leaks in the roofs.  And she won’t promise more.

She will also deal honestly and ably with what crises hit her.  No president is defined by his or her campaign platform, but rather how they react to the problems that are thrown at them.  Hillary Clinton will do that will a cool head.  We cannot say the same about Trump.

Image Courtesy: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, USA – Hillary Clinton, CC BY-SA 2.0