Documentary Review: Big Brother’s at the door with “Coded Bias” in facial rec tech, “data harvesting”

One of the cleverest touches of “Coded Bias,” the new film from documentarian Shalini Kantayya (“Catching the Sun”) is the faces we see and the voices she chose to give a platform to. The film — about the destructive biases in the algorithms that drive facial recognition and other computer software — is filled with experts and activists tackling this Big Tech/Big Brother coup head on.

And they’re pretty much all women. We go almost an hour into the film when we see and hear from the first male participant, a Hispanic Texas “teacher of the year” school teacher ID’d by buggy/racist software as a “bad teacher.” Almost everybody at the forefront on this war on “weapons of math destruction” is a woman. It calls attention to itself and makes you think about the gender biases in tech and tech journalism in a film about the biases built into the data and the software that culls it.

Kantayya’s film centers on the work of MIT student turned scientist/activist Joy Buolamwini, a young Ghanaian-American who figured out, in school, that the new facial recognition technology that’s sweeping the world — “capturing,” labeling and identifying us everywhere — can’t see Black people worth a damn.

The technology that police departments and ad-targeting companies in the West and the entire government of the People’s Republic of China are buying into, with little to no discussion about the freedom and civil rights implications implied, is buggy and, like a lot of algorithms — biased.

Kantayya takes us to a New York apartment complex that is abusing the tech to spy on tenants and “harass” them — via flawed IDs, in some cases.

“What did the Nazis do? They put tattoo’s on people’s arms,” one outraged tenant complains.

We meet Silkie Carlo of Big Brother Watch UK as she’s handing out fliers warning pedestrians that a green police van parked on the street nearby is capturing their faces, archiving the images and being used to compare with police databases to identify threats.

“Great” you think. An open, international city under near-constant terrorist threat is using the latest tech (Amazon is a leading purveyor) to keep everybody safe! Then you see a 14 year old Black kid in a school uniform surrounded and grabbed by plain clothes cops, searched and finger-printed, ending with not so much as an apology for their “Whoopsie. Wrong lad” from the Bobbies.

Authors of “Weapons of Math Destruction” (Cathy O’Neil) and “Algorithms of Oppression” (Safiya Noble) fill in the myriad ways this harvested “biased” data — facial rec. included — is being used to discriminate, limit lives, decide who gets a job, who deserves a loan, who should be loaned money because odds are they’ll default on that loan, etc.

“Powerful people are scoring (and preying on and oppressing) poor people,” is the upshot. There’s no debating “the black box,” no accountability for its mistakes, biases and flawed finalty as arbiter. And there’s little oversight on these chilling developments until recently, until Joy Buolamwini and others came along to point out the sexist, racist, ableist biases in the data being harvested on a vast scale on every person within reach of a computer or computer-trackable transaction.

We really are, as Carlo demonstrates reading a passage from a famed novel by George Orwell, living in “1984” and barely even realizing it.

But Kantayya’s film gives us hope — scenes of protestors in Hong Kong figuring out that laser pointers blind the facial rec cameras the Chinese state is using to ID and hunt “trouble makers” — Buolamwini, author Cathy O’Neil and others give Congressional testimony that points to the first actions by the US to rein in Big Tech in its pursuit of the vast layers of information necessary to manipulate people into behavior in everything from purchasing to voting.

That makes “Coded Bias” the best “wake up” call documentary of 2020, a movie filled with warnings discussed by the very smart women sounding those warnings, the very smart women doing something about this very real threat.

Cast: Joy Buolamwini, Silkie Carlo, Cathy O’Neil, Tranae Moran

Credits: Scripted and directed by Shalini Kantayya. A 7th Empire Media release.

Running time: 1:30

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