- Tech experts and rights groups are criticizing a plan from the Trump administration to develop software that would automate the vetting process immigrants undergo.
- In recent months, the Department of Homeland Security has sought contractors to build the software, but it's unclear what the status of those plans are.
- Such software would be "inaccurate and biased" and would likely target innocent people, the experts said.
The Trump administration in recent months has solicited technology firms to develop software that would use artificial intelligence to examine prospective immigrants for their risk of committing terrorist acts — a system critics say will likely be riddled with inaccuracies and result in the exclusion or deportation of innocent people who pose no threat.
In two open letters published Thursday, dozens of computer scientists and tech experts, civil liberties groups, and immigration advocates denounced the plan, known as the "Extreme Vetting Initiative," and urged acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke to drop it.
"Simply put, no computational methods can provide reliable or objective assessments of the traits that" Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) "seeks to measure," according to a letter signed by 54 tech experts from prominent universities and tech firms. "In all likelihood, the proposed system would be inaccurate and biased. We urge you to reconsider this program."
The status of the Trump administration's plan is unclear, but internal documents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) first published by The Intercept show that ICE solicited contractors as recently as July and August to build a system that could automate the government's vetting procedures for immigrants and visa applicants.
The plan stems from President Donald Trump's pledges to use "extreme vetting" of immigrants to weed out potential terrorists, a commitment he repeated after an October attack in New York City killed eight people.
"I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!"Trump tweeted after the attack.
According to the DHS documents, the contractors hired for the initiative would be expected to "exploit" publicly available information, including applicants' social media profiles, to extract information regarding criminal activity and national security threats.
The software would have to predict both "an applicant's probability of becoming a positively contributing member of society," and "whether an applicant intends to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States."
These algorithms aren't likely to accurately predict the terrorist threats
The problem, tech experts said in their letter, is that such characteristics are neither defined nor quantified, and such algorithms would need to rely on more easily observable "proxies" that may have no relation to a terrorist threat, such as a person's Facebook post criticizing US foreign policy.
"Algorithms designed to predict these undefined qualities could be used to arbitrarily flag groups of immigrants under a veneer of objectivity," the experts said.
The letter went on to explain that any such software, even if it were the most accurate possible model, would return a high rate of false positives, or, "innocent individuals falsely identified as presenting a risk of crime or terrorism who would face serious repercussions not connected to their real level of risk."
"Data mining is a powerful tool … And we recognize that the federal government must enforce immigration laws and maintain national security," the experts said. "But the approach set forth by ICE is neither appropriate nor feasible."
Dozens of rights groups and immigration advocates also took to Twitter to decry the initiative, which they dubbed a "digital Muslim ban," and published a separate open letter urging the DHS to abandon the program.
"This initiative is tailor-made for discrimination," they said. "It risks hiding politicized, discriminatory decisions behind a veneer of objectivity — at great cost to freedom of speech, civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights. It will hurt real, decent people and tear families apart."