Transparent algorithms? Here's why that's a bad idea, Google tells MPs

Look, people use microwaves and cars, and they effectively operate as black boxes


Opening up the processes that underpin algorithms may well magnify the risk of hacking, widen privacy concerns and stifle innovation, Google has told MPs in the UK.

The comments came in Google's response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's inquiry into algorithmic decision-making, which is questioning whether organisations should be more open about how machines influence such choices.

Google, whose business model has relied heavily on secretive algorithms, was careful to emphasise that it supported responsible use of the technology, as it played down concerns over their "black box" nature.

"In the broadest sense, an algorithm is simply a set of instructions," Google whispered soothingly in the committee members' ears. "Cooking recipes, instructions on how to play a game, and walking directions are all everyday illustrations of what could be called algorithms."

Google argued some approaches to increased transparency, like disclosing code or data in its raw form, have their downsides. "A flood of technical detail [might] fail to provide adequate notice or understanding about the critical characteristics of a technology.

"Even when transparency is warranted, it is worth noting that there are many ways that it could be implemented."

For instance, the algorithmic model can be can be selectively tested with different types of input to "provide an indicator of whether it might be producing negative or unfair effects".

Or it could maybe give people a "visual indication of key metrics" that relate to the way the model works, without going into the "full complexity".

The real issue here is trust – and increased transparency "is not the only way" of achieving this, the Chocolate Factory went on.

"Many technologies in society operate as 'black boxes' to the user – microwaves, automobiles, and lights – and are largely trusted and relied upon without the need for the intricacies of these devices to be understood by the user."

The megacorp also offered up some legitimate concerns businesses have about letting people get too good a look under the hood – namely protecting trade secrets.

Data protection laws do allow companies to keep some of their cards close to their chest, Google said, and watering these down could impact innovation.

"This would be especially damaging for new entrants, who are likely to find it harder to compete with established players with the resources to swiftly imitate and create a competing service."

This view was echoed by TechUK, the representative body for smaller firms, which pointed out that such information is likely to be commercially sensitive.

"Creating a situation where UK firms wanting to develop or use algorithmic decision making technologies are held back by requirements that prevent innovation, creativity and competition in the market, while global competitors are not, would be detrimental to the government's post-Brexit vision of Global Britain," the group said.

Elsewhere in its submission, Google suggested that opening up the tech behind decision-making algorithms – even in a controlled environment – "magnifies the risk of gaming and hacking", and might even pose a problem for personal data protection.

"Typically, in order to review the output of an algorithm, you need to know the data that is used as input. However, in some instances this data will consist of personal information. While it's possible to de-identify and aggregate data and limit privacy exposure, that in turn will limit the extent to which you can analyse individual applications of the algorithm, or check for bias or incomplete data."

The committee is still accepting written submissions on the subject, which is also looking at the risk of errors and bias related to increased reliance on algorithms in decision-making. ®

Similar topics

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • Google has more reasons why it doesn't like antitrust law that affects Google
    It'll ruin Gmail, claims web ads giant

    Google has a fresh list of reasons why it opposes tech antitrust legislation making its way through Congress but, like others who've expressed discontent, the ad giant's complaints leave out mention of portions of the proposed law that address said gripes.

    The law bill in question is S.2992, the Senate version of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which is closer than ever to getting votes in the House and Senate, which could see it advanced to President Biden's desk.

    AICOA prohibits tech companies above a certain size from favoring their own products and services over their competitors. It applies to businesses considered "critical trading partners," meaning the company controls access to a platform through which business users reach their customers. Google, Apple, Amazon, and Meta in one way or another seemingly fall under the scope of this US legislation. 

    Continue reading
  • Hangouts hangs up: Google chat app shuts this year
    How many messaging services does this web giant need? It's gotta be over 9,000

    Google is winding down its messaging app Hangouts before it officially shuts in November, the web giant announced on Monday.

    Users of the mobile app will see a pop-up asking them to move their conversations onto Google Chat, which is yet another one of its online services. It can be accessed via Gmail as well as its own standalone application. Next month, conversations in the web version of Hangouts will be ported over to Chat in Gmail. 

    Continue reading
  • I was fired for blowing the whistle on cult's status in Google unit, says contractor
    The internet giant, a doomsday religious sect, and a lawsuit in Silicon Valley

    A former Google video producer has sued the internet giant alleging he was unfairly fired for blowing the whistle on a religious sect that had all but taken over his business unit. 

    The lawsuit demands a jury trial and financial restitution for "religious discrimination, wrongful termination, retaliation and related causes of action." It alleges Peter Lubbers, director of the Google Developer Studio (GDS) film group in which 34-year-old plaintiff Kevin Lloyd worked, is not only a member of The Fellowship of Friends, the exec was influential in growing the studio into a team that, in essence, funneled money back to the fellowship.

    In his complaint [PDF], filed in a California Superior Court in Silicon Valley, Lloyd lays down a case that he was fired for expressing concerns over the fellowship's influence at Google, specifically in the GDS. When these concerns were reported to a manager, Lloyd was told to drop the issue or risk losing his job, it is claimed. 

    Continue reading
  • End of the road for biz living off free G Suite legacy edition
    Firms accustomed to freebies miffed that web giant's largess doesn't last

    After offering free G Suite apps for more than a decade, Google next week plans to discontinue its legacy service – which hasn't been offered to new customers since 2012 – and force business users to transition to a paid subscription for the service's successor, Google Workspace.

    "For businesses, the G Suite legacy free edition will no longer be available after June 27, 2022," Google explains in its support document. "Your account will be automatically transitioned to a paid Google Workspace subscription where we continue to deliver new capabilities to help businesses transform the way they work."

    Small business owners who have relied on the G Suite legacy free edition aren't thrilled that they will have to pay for Workspace or migrate to a rival like Microsoft, which happens to be actively encouraging defectors. As noted by The New York Times on Monday, the approaching deadline has elicited complaints from small firms that bet on Google's cloud productivity apps in the 2006-2012 period and have enjoyed the lack of billing since then.

    Continue reading
  • It's a crime to use Google Analytics, watchdog tells Italian website
    Because data flows into the United States, not because of that user interface

    Updated Another kicking has been leveled at American tech giants by EU regulators as Italy's data protection authority ruled against transfers of data to the US using Google Analytics.

    The ruling by the Garante was made yesterday as regulators took a close look at a website operator who was using Google Analytics. The regulators found that the site collected all manner of information.

    So far, so normal. Google Analytics is commonly used by websites to analyze traffic. Others exist, but Google's is very much the big beast. It also performs its analysis in the USA, which is what EU regulators have taken exception to. The place is, after all, "a country without an adequate level of data protection," according to the regulator.

    Continue reading
  • Google recasts Anthos with hitch to AWS Outposts
    If at first you don't succeed, change names and try again

    Google Cloud's Anthos on-prem platform is getting a new home under the search giant’s recently announced Google Distributed Cloud (GDC) portfolio, where it will live on as a software-based competitor to AWS Outposts and Microsoft Azure Stack.

    Introduced last fall, GDC enables customers to deploy managed servers and software in private datacenters and at communication service provider or on the edge.

    Its latest update sees Google reposition Anthos on-prem, introduced back in 2020, as the bring-your-own-server edition of GDC. Using the service, customers can extend Google Cloud-style management and services to applications running on-prem.

    Continue reading
  • Makers of ad blockers and browser privacy extensions fear the end is near
    Overhaul of Chrome add-ons set for January, Google says it's for all our own good

    Special report Seven months from now, assuming all goes as planned, Google Chrome will drop support for its legacy extension platform, known as Manifest v2 (Mv2). This is significant if you use a browser extension to, for instance, filter out certain kinds of content and safeguard your privacy.

    Google's Chrome Web Store is supposed to stop accepting Mv2 extension submissions sometime this month. As of January 2023, Chrome will stop running extensions created using Mv2, with limited exceptions for enterprise versions of Chrome operating under corporate policy. And by June 2023, even enterprise versions of Chrome will prevent Mv2 extensions from running.

    The anticipated result will be fewer extensions and less innovation, according to several extension developers.

    Continue reading
  • FTC urged to probe Apple, Google for enabling ‘intense system of surveillance’
    Ad tracking poses a privacy and security risk in post-Roe America, lawmakers warn

    Democrat lawmakers want the FTC to investigate Apple and Google's online ad trackers, which they say amount to unfair and deceptive business practices and pose a privacy and security risk to people using the tech giants' mobile devices.

    US Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and House Representative Sara Jacobs (D-CA) requested on Friday that the watchdog launch a probe into Apple and Google, hours before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, clearing the way for individual states to ban access to abortions. 

    In the days leading up to the court's action, some of these same lawmakers had also introduced data privacy bills, including a proposal that would make it illegal for data brokers to sell sensitive location and health information of individuals' medical treatment.

    Continue reading
  • Google: How we tackled this iPhone, Android spyware
    Watching people's every move and collecting their info – not on our watch, says web ads giant

    Spyware developed by Italian firm RCS Labs was used to target cellphones in Italy and Kazakhstan — in some cases with an assist from the victims' cellular network providers, according to Google's Threat Analysis Group (TAG).

    RCS Labs customers include law-enforcement agencies worldwide, according to the vendor's website. It's one of more than 30 outfits Google researchers are tracking that sell exploits or surveillance capabilities to government-backed groups. And we're told this particular spyware runs on both iOS and Android phones.

    We understand this particular campaign of espionage involving RCS's spyware was documented last week by Lookout, which dubbed the toolkit "Hermit." We're told it is potentially capable of spying on the victims' chat apps, camera and microphone, contacts book and calendars, browser, and clipboard, and beam that info back to base. It's said that Italian authorities have used this tool in tackling corruption cases, and the Kazakh government has had its hands on it, too.

    Continue reading
  • UK competition watchdog seeks to make mobile browsers, cloud gaming and payments more competitive
    Investigation could help end WebKit monoculture on iOS devices

    The United Kingdom's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on Friday said it intends to launch an investigation of Apple's and Google's market power with respect to mobile browsers and cloud gaming, and to take enforcement action against Google for its app store payment practices.

    "When it comes to how people use mobile phones, Apple and Google hold all the cards," said Andrea Coscelli, Chief Executive of the CMA, in a statement. "As good as many of their services and products are, their strong grip on mobile ecosystems allows them to shut out competitors, holding back the British tech sector and limiting choice."

    The decision to open a formal investigation follows the CMA's year-long study of the mobile ecosystem. The competition watchdog's findings have been published in a report that concludes Apple and Google have a duopoly that limits competition.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022