Of course technology perpetuates racism. It was designed that way. | MIT Technology Review
We often call on technology to help solve problems. But when society defines, frames, and represents people of color as “the problem,” those solutions often do more harm than good. We’ve designed facial recognition technologies that target criminal suspects on the basis of skin color. We’ve trained automated risk profiling systems that disproportionately identify Latinx people as illegal immigrants. We’ve devised credit scoring algorithms that disproportionately identify black people as risks and prevent them from buying homes, getting loans, or finding jobs.
So the question we have to confront is whether we will continue to design and deploy tools that serve the interests of racism and white supremacy,
Of course, it’s not a new question at all.
As part of a DARPA project aimed at turning the tide of the Vietnam War, Pool’s company had been hard at work preparing a massive propaganda and psychological campaign against the Vietcong. President Johnson was eager to deploy Simulmatics’s behavioral influence technology to quell the nation’s domestic threat, not just its foreign enemies. Under the guise of what they called a “media study,” Simulmatics built a team for what amounted to a large-scale surveillance campaign in the “riot-affected areas” that captured the nation’s attention that summer of 1967.
Three-member teams went into areas where riots had taken place that summer. They identified and interviewed strategically important black people. They followed up to identify and interview other black residents, in every venue from barbershops to churches. They asked residents what they thought about the news media’s coverage of the “riots.” But they collected data on so much more, too: how people moved in and around the city during the unrest, who they talked to before and during, and how they prepared for the aftermath. They collected data on toll booth usage, gas station sales, and bus routes. They gained entry to these communities under the pretense of trying to understand how news media supposedly inflamed “riots.” But Johnson and the nation’s political leaders were trying to solve a problem. They aimed to use the information that Simulmatics collected to trace information flow during protests to identify influencers and decapitate the protests’ leadership.
They didn’t accomplish this directly. They did not murder people, put people in jail, or secretly “disappear” them.
But by the end of the 1960s, this kind of information had helped create what came to be known as “criminal justice information systems.” They proliferated through the decades, laying the foundation for racial profiling, predictive policing, and racially targeted surveillance. They left behind a legacy that includes millions of black and brown women and men incarcerated.