Atlas Lab – Breaking the Black Box of Law & Tech

By Jonathan McCully, 18th January 2021

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Just over a year ago, Aurum Linh and I spoke about our plans to develop a tool to demystify two processes that can seem daunting, even elusive: machine learning and human rights litigation.

We believe that understanding these processes a bit better can unlock opportunities for collaborative action in challenging the human rights harms that are perpetrated or contributed to by technologies that are often referred to as “artificial intelligence” or “AI.”

To help break open these processes, we wanted to build a tool that can deconstruct what it means to build a machine learning system and take a human rights case to court.

Today, we are launching Atlas Lab — a project that seeks to build a knowledge base that lawyers, activists and human rights defenders can use when working on the front lines of AI and human rights litigation.

As automated decision making becomes a routine part of our everyday lives, it will also play a role in critical litigation around privacy, labor, due process, and other human rights issues. We need strong precedents to ensure our rights are protected and promoted.

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There are, however, limited resources to bridge the gap of these disciplines and we hope our site can go some way towards doing that. The site consists of a library of explainer articles on machine learning and litigation, and a small database of summaries of court decisions that are at the intersection of these two worlds.

The process of building Atlas Lab has been a long but fulfilling one, and we have benefitted hugely from those already taking action to protect our rights against wayward machines.

Aurum and I worked on this project through a Mozilla Fellowship, with Aurum being hosted within the Digital Freedom Fund. Over the course of the Fellowship, we had the opportunity to put a prototype of the tool to an experienced group of lawyers, technologists and activists already exploring the legal implications of machine learning and similar tools at DFF’s annual strategy meeting in 2020. We were also privileged to listen and learn from computer scientists, litigators and individuals who have been affected by these technologies across several events, including our dedicated RightsCon session, and DFF’s meeting on COVID-19 and AI. These conversations have greatly enriched the site, but any errors or omissions remain our own.

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In the coming months, unaffiliated to the activities of DFF, Aurum will be organizing an event series focused on the voices of those whose lives have been affected by algorithmic decision making. The series will revolve around the criminal justice system, immigration agencies, and child welfare services.

We hope that this resource can help lawyers, public interest technologists and activists in developing their work at the intersection of emerging technologies and human rights litigation. We know that it is in no way complete, so if you notice any anything that is incorrect or missing from our explanations, please let us know! We welcome any input that can help make the content of the site as useful and informative as possible. To stay updated, reach out to us on our website and follow along on Twitter and LinkedIn!

Artwork by Cynthia Alonso and Justina Leston

Tackling AI in the Time of COVID

By Jonathan McCully, 9th October 2020

How can we protect our digital rights amidst tech-solutionist approaches to combat the COVID-19 pandemic?

30 participants in DFF’s “AI in times of COVID” workshop examined this question from different angles over the past 3 days, joining for an online meeting from around the world.

The workshop built on the “Litigating Algorithms in Europe” workshop DFF and the AI Now Institute organised in November 2019. One of the desired follow-ups from that gathering was an international meeting on combatting the impact of AI on human rights through strategic litigation.

As we all know, the world has changed quite a bit since, which changed not only the format of the meeting, but also the scope.

As we wrote earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic also created a crisis for digital rights. However, the transborder nature of the pandemic also created an opportunity: if we are seeing similar measures –– COVID apps, health trackers and other tech solutions –– being rolled out around the world, how can we make sure we push for standards that protect our human rights? Can we leverage positive results in one jurisdiction in another? And: what best practices and tactics from the pre-COVID world can we draw upon to successfully fight these battles?

…what best practices and tactics from the pre-COVID world can we draw upon to successfully fight these battles?

Trends in Tech-solutionism

We started the first day of the workshop by listening and learning from participants across the globe who have been monitoring the “tech-solutionist” measures that have been rolled out during the pandemic both in and outside of Europe. They explained the issues they had been spotting and which litigation actions they were considering taking in response.

Reflecting on these sessions at the outset of day 2, participants noted that “tech inevitability” was a common thread across different jurisdictions and asked the question how we could counter the narrative of governments framing technology as the main way to solve the health crisis.

Pushing for Transparency
 

One of the key issues in challenging automated systems being used is knowing that they are being used in the first place. There often is a lack of transparency of what type of algorithmic decision-making is being deployed, as well as when and how.

One way to push for greater transparency is by using freedom of information requests. After hearing experiences from different participants in using this tool, we co-created a checklist of what litigators could be asking for.

One way to push for greater transparency is by using freedom of information requests.

After that (as well as a joint coffee break to top up the levels of caffeine), participants looked at what could be learned from successful cases in a non-COVID context. Lawyers who had worked on the Dutch SyRI case, the challenge to police use of facial recognition in the UK, and lawyers who had taken on a Medicaid algorithm that reduced care to disabled patients and the COMPAS risk assessment system in the US shared their stories, tactics, and lessons learned.

Best Practice Brainstorming

Following a round of participant-proposed best practice brainstorming sessions on day 3, which looked at best practices for communicating the impact of COVID technology to sceptical judges, strategies to safeguard against repurposing COVID tech after the pandemic, how to solve tech inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, and tackling machine and human bias in automated systems, we revisited the potential cases we started the workshop with on day 1 to see how the strategies and tactics discussed between that first and this last session could be leveraged.

…we looked at best practices for communicating the impact of COVID technology to sceptical judges, strategies to safeguard against repurposing COVID tech after the pandemic, how to solve tech inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, and tackling machine and human bias in automated systems

It is unfortunate that the group were not able to meet in person during these exceptionally challenging times, but it was truly uplifting and inspiring to virtually connect, discuss and brainstorm with an amazing group working hard to safeguard our digital rights during the current health crisis. There was plenty of food for thought, and ideas shared for further collaboration and information sharing, and we look forward to seeing this invaluable work progress.

Graphic Recordings by Blanche Illustrates and TEMJAM

Join Our Virtual Litigation Retreat!

By Jonathan McCully, 24th September 2020

We are very excited to be bringing back DFF’s litigation retreat in an online format between 12 and 18 November 2020 (excluding the weekend), and we welcome applications from litigators across Europe working on digital rights issues to join us.

In 2018, we ran litigation retreats in Montenegro and Belgrade. You can watch a video of our first retreat here. These were great opportunities for digital rights litigators to spend time together, sharpen their litigation skills, and share knowledge, experiences and tactics that others could use in their own litigation.

During these retreats, a variety of cases were workshopped from challenges to police use of facial recognition technology to litigation against Facebook’s censorship of user content. 

At our retreats, we aim to create a co-learning environment where participants can concentrate their time, energy and attention to further developing and working through challenges in relation to an ongoing piece of digital rights litigation.

Through creating this space, and holding focused discussions, we hope that participants can come away from these retreats with an enhanced litigation strategy and plan for their cases. As a participant from a previous retreat said: “it is a unique opportunity to stop and reflect on what can be done better when you’re trying to achieve change using strategic litigation.”

…“it is a unique opportunity to stop and reflect on what can be done better when you’re trying to achieve change using strategic litigation”

We have remodeled our previous retreats in order to hold this one virtually. It will include strategic litigation training and workshopping components in a collaborative online environment. The four-day programme will comprise sessions on building skills for developing a litigation strategy, case planning, and advocacy, and will include dedicated sessions on thematic areas relevant to litigating digital rights cases in Europe.

Built into this agenda will be dedicated group work, where participants will work on strategic litigation plans for case studies that they have brought to the virtual retreat. We will also have some time to get to know each other with some informal online social activities.

The four-day programme will comprise sessions on building skills for developing a litigation strategy, case planning, and advocacy, and will include dedicated sessions on thematic areas

As with past retreats, the aim of the four days is to give participants time to do deep work on their case studies. Therefore, even though the online sessions across the four days will be short and intensive, we encourage those attending to use the rest of the time across these four days to disconnect from other ongoing projects and think through aspects of their cases in light of conversations they will have with the group. Therefore, we would recommend that all those who attend treat the four days as a real retreat, away from other work pressures and external realities. 

If you are interested in joining us, please get in touch with us and we will send you a short application form to fill out. The deadline for applications is 16 October 2020.

The main thing we ask for is that all participants come to the retreat with a digital rights case study – whether existing or hypothetical – that they would be interested in litigating. Ideally, the case study would fall within DFF’s thematic focus areas, which you can read more about here, but we are open to other strategic case ideas as well. 

We hope you will be able to join us!