ICO asked to clarify role on algorithms

Select committee chair Norman Lamb has written to information commissioner Elizabeth Denham 

The chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Norman Lamb, has written to the Information Commissioner’s Office to seek clarity on its role in overseeing the use of algorithms, PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World has learned.

Lamb wrote to the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, after receiving the government’s response to the select committee’s May report on the use of algorithms in decision-making. Although broadly positive about the MPs’ call for greater transparency around how algorithms are used in both the public and private sectors, the response failed to address several of their recommendations.

The response appeared to reject the ideas that government should publish a list of where departments use algorithms to make decisions and appoint a “ministerial champion” to oversee their use, which Lamb described as “disappointing”.

Lamb also noted it was “fairly vague on some of the information commissioner’s responsibilities”, which prompted him to write to Denham asking her to respond directly to the committee’s recommendations.

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Among other issues, Lamb said he wanted the commissioner to address the committee’s call for a legally enforceable “right to explanation” allowing people to enquire about how decisions affecting them are made. The committee had suggested ICO, along with the government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, should consider these safeguards as part of a wider review of the General Data Protection Regulation.

The government’s response did not address the recommendation, which also said individuals should be able to challenge decisions where appropriate. “That is clearly an important issue. The commissioner may have some thoughts or views on that, so it will be interesting to see her response,” Lamb, who is Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, told CSW.

The committee has argued that giving people a right to explanation would allow greater scrutiny of decisions in areas such as the criminal justice system, healthcare and finance. It could help to protect individuals from unfair decisions in cases where algorithms reflect the unintentional bias of their programmers, its report said.

“In terms of citizens’ rights, as the use of algorithms spreads potentially quite rapidly, I think it’s critical there’s that level of transparency and openness,” Lamb said.

Lamb said he would continue to press the government to increase oversight of algorithms and to respond to the recommendations it hasn’t yet addressed. The committee will consider whether to hold further hearings or write to relevant ministers, both in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and in other departments where algorithms could be widely used. “I think we need to be prepared to dive into specific areas as the need arises,” Lamb said.

The MPs will also meet Roger Taylor, the head of the government’s data ethics centre, in the coming weeks to “reinforce the conclusions we reached to seek to influence the debate”, he added.

“There’s a general need for everyone [in government] to be aware of the rapid emergence and development of the use of algorithms and the consequences of that, particularly in terms of citizens’ rights and the risk of bias and the importance of explanation and of data security,” Lamb said.

Sam Trendall

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