2017-05-10

Matt Mitchell on Racist Algorithms

The situation is fairly clear for crypto-specialist and data journalist Matt Mitchell: people of colour and minorities in the United States have been subjected to surveillance for centuries. These days, exact profiles of neighbourhoods and their residents are created through permanent control, while at the same time fuelling a climate of prejudice and mistrust. Crimes then become self-fulfilling prophecies in these severely monitored areas – more violations are registered there precisely because the areas are controlled to that extent. Mitchell sees this as a dismal tradition that reaches back to the beginnings of slavery in the United States.

Movie recommendation: Do not Resist
[video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Zt7bl5Z_oA]

It’s clear to him: You fear those who are different and, because of that, you monitor them. Mitchell experiences this dynamic in his native Harlem, New York: this borough is much more intensely controlled, due to its African-American and Latino population, than the neighbouring, mostly white East Village. He counted up further points in which the US takes a disproportionate interest in the privacy of its citizens:

  • Auto licence plate reader: sensors located in public spaces scan the licence plates of passing cars. According to Mitchell, these sensors are often located in African-American and Latino neighbourhoods.
  • Skywatch tower: a type of mobile watch tower on a cherry-picker that allows for the observation of street activity.
  • Shotspotters: microphones in public spaces that register gunshots. Once in use, however, they can also record conversations. Their effectiveness is disputed.
  • Electronic Benefit Transfer Card (EBT): this works as a type of credit card for those in need, allowing them to shop and get money out at banks. All the data and even the items purchased with the card are saved and are even accessible for social workers.


This means that cameras, software and algorithms aren’t neutral, as they specifically target and observe marginalized groups such as the African-American and Latino population of the United States. They were programmed by people who were, either consciously or subconsciously, biased towards people of a different skin colour, minorities or marginalised groups. The time has come to defend ourselves: Mitchell recommends the community network WeCopWatch as a tool for monitoring police abuse of power, as well as racial profiling. People can use it to document when people of colour are stopped and searched on the street for no apparent reason – this then creates a database that allows for a legally effective documentation of abuses.

by Sylvia Lundschien (EJS) and Annika Zimmermann (FF)

Recommended reading & links:
Simone Browne: Dark Matters. On the Surveillance of Blackness
Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow. Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy. A Story of Justice and Redemption
Equal Justice Initiative

Photo credit: re:publica/Jan Michalko(CC BY-SA 2.0)

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