Monthly Archives

December 2017


ProPublica: New York City Moves to Create Accountability for Algorithms

December 18, 2017

By: Lauren Kirchner
December 18, 2017

The algorithms that play increasingly central roles in our lives often emanate from Silicon Valley, but the effort to hold them accountable may have another epicenter: New York City. Last week, the New York City Council unanimously passed a bill to tackle algorithmic discrimination — the first measure of its kind in the country.

The algorithmic accountability bill, waiting to be signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, establishes a task force that will study how city agencies use algorithms to make decisions that affect New Yorkers’ lives, and whether any of the systems appear to discriminate against people based on age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or citizenship status. The task force’s report will also explore how to make these decision-making processes understandable to the public.

The bill’s sponsor, Council Member James Vacca, said he was inspired by ProPublica’s investigation into racially biased algorithms used to assess the criminal risk of defendants.

“My ambition here is transparency, as well as accountability,” Vacca said.

A previous, more sweeping version of the bill had mandated that city agencies publish the source code of all algorithms being used for “targeting services” or “imposing penalties upon persons or policing” and to make them available for “self-testing” by the public. At a hearing at City Hall in October, representatives from the mayor’s office expressed concerns that this mandate would threaten New Yorkers’ privacy and the government’s cybersecurity.

The bill was one of two moves the City Council made last week concerning algorithms. On Thursday, the committees on health and public safety held a hearing on the city’s forensic methods, including controversial tools that the chief medical examiner’s office crime lab has used for difficult-to-analyze samples of DNA.

As a ProPublica/New York Times investigation detailed in September, an algorithm created by the lab for complex DNA samples has been called into question by scientific experts and former crime lab employees.

The software, called the Forensic Statistical Tool, or FST, has never been adopted by any other lab in the country.

Council Member Corey Johnson, chair of the health committee, quoted two key findings of our investigation: that FST’s inventors had acknowledged a margin of error of 30 percent for one key input of the program, and that the program could not take into consideration that family members might share DNA.

New York City no longer uses the tool for new cases. But officials at the hearing said they saw no need to revisit the thousands of criminal cases that relied on the technique in years past.

“Would you be open to reviewing cases in which testing was done on very small mixtures, or do you feel totally confident in all of the methods and science that were used on every case that’s come through your lab?” Johnson asked the officials.

“We are totally confident,” answered Dr. Barbara Sampson, the city’s chief medical examiner.

The algorithm’s source code was a closely held secret for years until a federal judge granted a motion filed by ProPublica to lift a protective order on it in October. We then published the code.

Defense attorneys testified at the hearing, criticizing the medical examiner’s office for what they saw as a dangerous lack of transparency in the development of its DNA tools.

Some had joined together to write to the state’s inspector general in September, demanding an investigation into the lab and a review of past cases. The inspector general, Catherine Leahy Scott, has not yet indicated whether she will pursue it. Meanwhile, the New York State Commission on Forensic Science, which oversees the use of forensic methods in the state’s labs, has discussed the criticisms in executive session meetings. Those sessions are closed to the public and commission members are prohibited from speaking about them.

After the hearing, Johnson said he was concerned by the discrepancies between the medical examiner’s testimony and that of advocates and intended to explore it further.

“This is a very, very, very important issue, and we have to ensure that methods that are used are scientifically sound, validated in appropriate ways, transparent to the public and to defense counsels, and ensure greater trust in the justice system,” said Johnson. “And I think that is what, hopefully, we can achieve, through asking more questions — and potentially thinking about legislation in the future.”


AM New York: Chelsea mural by Julien Binford saved from demolition after community outcry

December 14, 2017

By: Ivan Pereira
December 14, 2017

A 110-foot mural depicting the historic streets of Chelsea has been saved from demolition.

City Councilman Corey Johnson announced Wednesday evening that the 1954 Julien Binford mural, “A Memory of 14th Street and 6th Avenue,” which was inside the former HSBC bank at that location, has been preserved. Gemini Rosemont, the building site’s developer, received concerned feedback from community residents, and word evenentually made its way to Binford’s family. His family safely removed the mural this week from the bank’s walls, and placed it in storage.

“This victory would not have been possible without the passionate dedication of engaged community advocacy,” Johnson said in a statement.

Binford’s painting on canvas depicts a bustling 19th century city scene complete with horse-drawn carriages, crowds dressed in vintage garb and a marching band.

“Each generation builds on the accomplishments of those that came before. As New York leads the way into the future, it is crucial that we value the legacy of the generations who preceded us,” Johnson said.


WNYC: New York City Council Members Grill Crime Lab Officials About Unregulated DNA Database

December 14, 2017

By: Ann Givens
December 14, 2017

New York police and crime lab officials faced tough questions on Thursday about whether a large, unregulated DNA database built in part to solve more gun cases violates the civil rights of the people whose profiles are in it.

Corey Johnson, who chairs the New York City Council’s health committee, said at a joint hearing with the committee on public safety that he was concerned about the rights of people whose DNA winds up in the database. He said that, with no procedures in place to remove DNA profiles from the database without a court order, innocent people are at risk of being erroneously connected to crimes.

“If you’re holding on to their DNA and running whenever new cases come up, how is that fair?” Johnson asked Chief Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson and the NYPD’s Crime Lab chief, Emanuel Katranakis.

The number of DNA profiles stored by the city has grown dramatically over the last five years. As of July, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner was storing about 64,000 genetic profiles.

The Trace and WNYC were the first to report details about the size and rapid growth of the database. There are people in it who have never been convicted of a crime, and have no idea that their genetic profiles are routinely checked against evidence collected in criminal investigations.

The DNA in the database comes largely from crime scenes and suspects at a time when it is increasingly easy to obtain a profile from just a few cells left on a water bottle or doorknob.

The parameters and protocols governing the database are not published, nor were they provided to The Trace and WNYC when requested. Johnson asked at the hearing why that information is not readily available. The lab directors said it could be obtained through a public information request.

Katranakis said at the hearing that database hits generate thousands of solid investigative leads a year, and are a major way police nab dangerous criminals. He added that the DNA in the database is also often used to exonerate the innocent, not just convict the guilty.

Marika Meis, the legal director of The Bronx Defenders, a public defenders group, said she’s disturbed by the lab directors’ lack of transparency about whose DNA profiles are in the database.

“Yes, they do routinely put in profiles from someone who is exonerated,” she said. “And they do so automatically, and without clear legislative authority to do so.”

Johnson said his committee will continue its “fact finding” about the database, and may introduce legislation or take other, unspecified action. After hearing from officials, “I still have concerns,” he said.