'An environment of paranoia and retaliation': Report reveals Trump-era Commerce Department's 'obscure security unit'

During Donald Trump's four years as president, his administration was a revolving door. But one person who was part of the Trump Administration throughout most of his presidency was former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who started in February 2017 and stayed until February 2021. The U.S. Department of Commerce, journalist Shawn Boburg reports in an article published by the Washington Post on May 24, has had an "obscure security unit" that was "tasked with protecting" its "officials and facilities" — and during its Trump/Ross era, according to Boburg, it "evolved into something more akin to a counterintelligence operation that collected information on hundreds of people inside and outside the Department."

According to Boburg, "The Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) covertly searched employees' offices at night, ran broad keyword searches of their e-mails trying to surface signs of foreign influence and scoured Americans' social media for critical comments about the (2020 U.S.) Census, according to documents and interviews with five former investigators. In one instance, the unit opened a case on a 68-year-old retiree in Florida who tweeted that the Census, which is run by the Commerce Department, would be manipulated 'to benefit the Trump Party,' records show."

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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