Programs as Agents, Persons, or just Programs?

Last week, The Nation published my essay “Programs are People, Too“. In it, I argued for treating smart programs as the legal agents of those that deploy them, a legal change I suggest would be more protective of our privacy rights.

Among some of the responses I received was one from a friend, JW, who wrote:

[You write: But automation somehow deludes some people—besides Internet users, many state and federal judges—into imagining our privacy has not been violated. We are vaguely aware something is wrong, but are not quite sure what.]
I think we are aware that something is wrong and that it is less wrong.  We already have an area of the law where we deal with this, namely, dog sniffs.  We think dog sniffs are less injurious than people rifling through our luggage, indeed, the law refers to those sniffs are “sui generis.”  And I think they *are* less injurious, just like it doesn’t bother me that google searches my email with an algorithm.  This isn’t to say that it’s unreasonable for some people to be bothered by it, but I do think people are rightly aware that it is different and less intrusive than if some human were looking through their email.  
We don’t need to attribute personhood to dogs to feel violated by police bringing their sniffing up to our house for no reason, but at the same time we basically accept their presence in airports.  And what bothers us isn’t what’s in the dog’s mind, but in the master’s.  If a police dog smelled around my house, made an alert, but no police officer was there to interpret the alert, I’m not sure it would bother me.  
Similarly, even attributing intentional states to algorithms as sophisticated as a dog, I don’t think their knowledge would bother me until it was given to some human (what happens when they are as sophisticated as humans is another question).  
I’m not sure good old fashioned Fourth Amendment balancing can’t be instructive here.  Do we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in x? What are the governmental interests at stake and how large of an intrusion is being made into the reasonable expectation of privacy?  

JW makes two interesting points. First, is scanning or reading by programs of our personal data really injurious to privacy in the way a human’s reading is? Second, is the legal change I’m suggesting even necessary?

Second point first. Treating smart programs as legal persons is not necessary to bring about the changes I’m suggesting in my essay. Plain old legal agency without legal personhood will do just fine. Most legal jurisdictions require legal agents to be persons too, but this has not always been the case. Consider the following passage, which did not make it to the final version of the online essay:

If such a change—to full-blown legal personhood and legal agency—is felt to be too much, too soon, then we could also grant programs a limited form of legal agency without legal personhood. There is a precedent for this too: slaves in Roman times, despite not being persons in the eyes of the law, were allowed to enter into contracts for their masters, and were thus treated as their legal intermediaries. I mention this precedent because the legal system might prefer that the change in legal status of artificial agents be an incremental one; before they become legal persons and thus full legal subjects, they could ‘enjoy’ this form of limited legal subjecthood. As a society we might find this status uncomfortable enough to want to change their status to legal persons if we think its doctrinal and political advantages—like those alluded to here—are significant enough.

Now to JW’s first point. Is a program’s access to my personal data less injurious than a human’s? I don’t think so. Programs can do things with data: they can act on it. The opening example in my essay demonstrates this quite well:

Imagine the following situation: Your credit card provider uses a risk assessment program that monitors your financial activity. Using the information it gathers, it notices your purchases are following a “high-risk pattern”; it does so on the basis of a secret, proprietary algorithm. The assessment program, acting on its own, cuts off the use of your credit card. It is courteous enough to email you a warning. Thereafter, you find that actions that were possible yesterday—like making electronic purchases—no longer are. No humans at the credit card company were involved in this decision; its representative program acted autonomously on the basis of pre-set risk thresholds.

Notice in this example that for my life to be impinged on by the agency/actions of others, it was not necessary that a single human being be involved. We so often interact with the world through programs that they command considerable agency in our lives. Our personal data is valuable to us because control of it may make a difference to our lives; if programs can use the data to do so then our privacy laws should regulate them too–explicitly.

Let us return to JW’s sniffer dog example and update it. The dog is a robotic one; it uses sophisticated scanning technology to detect traces of cocaine on a passenger’s bag. When it does so, the nametag/passport photo associated with the bag are automatically transmitted to a facial recognition system, which establishes a match, and immediately sets off a series of alarms: perhaps my bank accounts are closed, perhaps my sophisticated car is immobilized, and so on. No humans need be involved in this decision; I may find my actions curtailed without any human having taken a single action. We don’t need “a police offer to interpret the alert.” (But I’ve changed his dog to a robotic dog, haven’t I? Yes, because the programs I am considering are, in some dimensions, considerably smarter than a sniffer dog. They are much, much, dumber in others.)

In speaking of the sniffer dog, JW says “I don’t think their knowledge would bother me until it was given to some human.” But as our examples show, a program could make the knowledge available to other programs, which could take actions too.

Indeed, programs could embarrass us too: imagine a society in which sex offenders are automatically flagged in public by publishing their photos on giant television screens in Times Square. Scanning programs intercept an email of mine, in which I have sent photos–of my toddler daughter bathing with her pre-school friend–to my wife. They decide on the basis of this data that I am a sex offender and flag me as such. Perhaps I’m only ‘really’ embarrassed when humans ‘view’ my photo but the safeguards for accessing data and its use need to be placed ‘upstream.’

Humans aren’t the only ones taking actions in this world of ours; programs are agents too. It is their agency that makes their access to our data interesting and possibly problematic. The very notion of an autonomous program would be considerably less useful if they couldn’t act on their own, interact with each other, and bring about changes.

Lastly, JW also raises the question of whether we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our email–stored on our ISP’s providers’ storage. Thanks to the terrible third-party doctrine, the Supreme Court has decided we do not. But this notion is ripe for over-ruling in these days of cloud computing. Our legal changes–on legal and normative grounds–should not be held up by bad law. But even if this were to stand, it would not affect my arguments in the essay, which conclude that data in transit, which is subject to the Wiretap Act, is still something in which we may find a reasonable expectation of privacy.

One comment on “Programs as Agents, Persons, or just Programs?

  1. JTP says:

    Reblogged this on Occasional Everything and commented:
    I got involved in a Facebook debate about the legitamcy of Google scanning emails.

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