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The Malgorithm Is Real! Here's Everything You Should Know About Malicious Algorithms

If you're like me, you used to think that algorithm was a word from a math class you never had to take! (Thank God)  But when it comes to how we use our technology, algorithm is a very big word indeed.

You may have heard it and maybe you even have a vague idea of what it is, right? You might think it's an artificial intelligence thing.  You might think it's something that advertisers use to try and find out what you like online or how a dating site hooks you up with someone they think is a good match.  Let's pull back the curtain and check it out:

At its most basic, an algorithm is a set of steps to accomplish a task. 

Every time we open Google maps we're seeing an algorithm in action.  Software has been created that calls for a series of steps to perform the job of you getting from point A to point B.  Thousands of data points were fed into the algorithm so it can automatically and quickly determine the order of the streets and turns that would take you from home to that great new cafe. And amazingly, give you the time it will take to get you there, factoring in current traffic conditions.  It's really amazing when you think about it, isn't it?

But Algorithms are not perfect.

Algorithms start with a creator. That's a programmer or a group of programmers who who input a series of actions into the software code, so that when you ask your map application to take you to the coffee shop, you can get there.

Nowadays, most map algorithms have been greatly improved so they don't take us to dead-ends or worse late at night--(I'm talking to you, first version of Hertz Never Lost!)--and they do mostly get us safely to our destinations. But the word here is improved--not perfected.

Because an algorithm is simply as imperfect as the input and the decisions of the person who programmed it, we have to be careful not to put the same blind trust that we all pretty much put into our Navi's and maps into every algorithm.

Beware the malicious algorithm.

Cathy O'Neil the brilliant author of Weapons of Math Destruction warns,

"I was struck by what I thought was essentially a lie, mainly that algorithms were being presented as objective fact."

O'Neil is reminding us that, to put it nicely, we need to be mindful of putting our trust in algorithms. Especially those that are programmed to decide if we get a loan for our first home, if we get into that amazing school or if we can trust answers when we use search engines to find "the best hotel in Des Moines.

O'Neil also says this:

"Algorithms make things work for the people who build the algorithms."

Oooh Burn.  I think a good way to describe an algorithm that is purposefully designed to NOT work for the people who are depending on it to complete the specific task they've asked it to, could be deemed a Malicious Algorithm. 

Let's Call It a MALGORITHM

Def. A MALGORITHM purposefully, or perhaps even unintentionally, causes harm or distress or unfairness.

MALGORITHMS can impact any of us (or any company for that matter), at any time.

Ironically, it looks like Google may be in hot water because of a naughty MALGORITHM. 

The US Justice department expected to outline a potential antitrust case against Google in the next few days reports the New York Times this last week or September and that focus of the case is said to focus on Google Search and the fact that the algorithm serves up results that are designed to, guess what--FAVOR GOOGLE at the expense of other businesses.  Is that a surprise? Is that legal?

Business Insider  reports on Google finance.

Google also sends people to Google Maps and for video to YouTube, which is also owned by parent Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOGL). YouTube is the second-largest source of revenue for the tech giant. Thus, Google uses search to increase its income, perhaps by as much as several hundred million dollars.

This bias, if it does exist, means that Google's algorithms have not been designed solely to serve the people who use it as their preferred search engine.

This happened: A MALGORITHM puts a man in jail.  It could happen to me.  It could happen to you.

Can you imagine?  The police knocking on your door because some facial identification MALGORITHM decided you were a match for a description of a suspect?

Yikes.  That's what happened to innocent Robert Williams.  The police department used Facial Recognition AI that just happened to not do a real good match, because racial bias had been programmed into it.

"Tech companies have responded to the criticism by improving the data used to train their facial recognition systems" reported CNET, but often the photos that are used to "train" the AI software are mostly white men and not enough women or people of color.  So, the Algorithm often gets it wrong.

Sounds like a MALGORITHM for sure.

Most of us have encountered a MALGORITHM that could cause us distress or harm as we scroll or social feeds

As the trending movie on Netflix, The Social Dilemma shows us, the algorithms Facebook uses can cause us to see the world from a very narrow point of view. 

It's the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy: The MALGORITHMS that social platforms use, are designed to do one thing--keep you on their site longer, so you can view more advertising.  So the MALGORITHM takes what you've looked at or interacted with, assumes you like that and serves you up more and more content just like that.  

The Social Dilemma makes a strong case that when it comes to things like politics and religion, users on either side of the spectrum are pushed further and further away from each other by MALGORITHMS.  It's distorted and not a balanced view of reality.  That's essentially why we've become so divided on major issues. But hey, it does keep you watching, right?  So it's working for someone!


It's Called A Filter Bubble

Although some claim it doesn't exist, Wikipedia defines filter bubble this way:

"A state of intellectual isolation that allegedly can result because an algorithm selectively guesses what information users would like to see based on user searches, location, and click behavior. As a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints."

Did you know that you can watch days of videos from people who claim the world is flat? There are over 130,000  members of this flat earth Facebook Group. Now, just because you can watch the content, that doesn't make it true. However, if you ONLY watch content about the world being flat, you eventually come to believe it's true.  Now that's a real MALGORITHM!

Be Mindful Of How A MALGORITHM Could Be Messing With You. Here Are A Few Tips To Outsmart Harmful or Distressing Or Unfair Algorithms:

1.  Be mindful that the social platforms you visit were not created to provide the news, just like comedians and news commentary programs, people have opinions so what you’re getting a lot of on Social platforms is opinion. In fact, the believably of a news source should be based on reputation and your smart evaluation of whether or not the information is trustworthy.  If something sounds unbelievable, try and confirm it using other sources before making it a belief.

2.  Get your news and important information from more than ONE place. When a topic is important to your life and well-being, realize that the internet offers unlimited options, so exercise your ability to be discerning and explore!

3. Check the top 5 search results on Google  If it's true that Google moving search results to the top that benefit Google the most, then scan the results and check out a few options.

4. Try another Search Engine.  There's Startpage, Qwant Search and Duck Duck Go--so mix it up and know that these searches also have your privacy in mind.

5. Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) Do Fake Google Searches.  Your search and Browsing data are being collected and archived and someday could be used in an algorithm to change your POV or decide if you should get a loan, or get into college or get a particular insurance plan.  A VPN can help keep your browsing private and doing Fake Searches, i.e. on things that might confuse the algorithm, can help keep you from falling into a specific category.

At Tech Wellness, we want you to keep living your best life, to use technology to make your life even better.  But as we've said many times before, just be aware of the fact that all our wonderful tech is created by people--and people aren't perfect.  If you find yourself with online results that just don't seem quite right, it might be a MALGORITHM. 

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