New Report Highlights Where Big Data and Civil Rights Intersect

Categories: Press Releases

For Immediate Release
Contact: Shin Inouye, 202.869.0398,

WASHINGTON D.C. – More and more often fundamental decisions that shape people’s lives—decisions about jobs, healthcare, housing, education, and criminal justice—are being made automatically by computers. As a result, important conversations about civil rights, and how these decisions are made, are also becoming conversations about how computer systems work.

Released today, a new report by Robinson + Yu answers the outpouring of interest from policymakers, community advocates, corporate leaders and the public – for concrete examples of how and where big data becomes a civil rights issue. This report, entitled Civil Rights and Big Data, and Our Algorithmic Future highlights precise instances where big data and civil rights intersect.

“At their best, new data-driven tools can strengthen the values of equal opportunity and equal justice. But we see some risks. For example, the E-Verify program, the voluntary, government-run system that employers can use to check whether new employees are work-eligible, has been plagued by an error rate that is 20 times higher for foreign-born workers than for those born in the United States,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and author of the report’s foreword. “To ensure that big data serves the best interests of each of us, civil rights must be a key part of any public policy framework. This report is a critical tool for ensuring that the voices of the civil and human rights community are heard in this important, ongoing national conversation.”

The report has four chapters that explore real-life examples of where big data intersects with civil rights related to financial inclusion, jobs, criminal justice and government data collection and use. Examples include:

  • Hidden bias of insurers against low-income drivers;
  • Data brokers targeting vulnerable communities;
  • Disparate impact of E-Verify on foreign-born workers;
  • Hiring algorithms putting jobs out reach for applicants;
  • The secrecy of police technologies;
  •  Body-worn cameras and police accountability;
  • Domestic dragnet surveillance; and
  • Data for civic welfare through the Census.

“As big data increasingly informs decisions from national security to public school budgets, from employment to law enforcement– vulnerable communities need policies that limit the risk of super-sized discrimination.  The 175 affiliate organizations of the Media Action Grassroots Network are organizing vulnerable constituencies to gain equal benefit from big data, and protect our communities from its misuse,” said Malkia A. Cyril, Executive Director, Center for Media Justice, home of the Media Action Grassroots Network. “We applaud this incredible report from Robinson + Yu, and are excited that it offers such an important case for civil rights protections against the unmitigated use of 21st century technologies to surveil communities of color, low-income families, migrants, and others.”

“Earlier this year, we served as technical advisors to a path-breaking coalition of major civil rights and media justice organizations that released the Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data,” said David Robinson, principal  at Robinson + Yu and Visiting Fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. “Since then, from the White House to the FTC and the NGO community – advocates, policymakers and everyday citizens have been asking the right questions about the growing use of digital surveillance, predictive analytics, and automated decision-making. We hope this report begins to shed light on these practices and their impact on core civil rights concerns.”

Robinson + Yu will also present the findings of this report on Monday, Sep. 15 at The Federal Trade Commission’s workshop entitled “Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?” 

Full text of the report: