Algorithmic decision-making employing profiling: will trade secrecy protection render the right to explanation toothless?

Ethics and Information Technology 24 (2) (2022)
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Abstract

Algorithmic decision-making based on profiling may significantly affect people’s destinies. As a rule, however, explanations for such decisions are lacking. What are the chances for a “right to explanation” to be realized soon? After an exploration of the regulatory efforts that are currently pushing for such a right it is concluded that, at the moment, the GDPR stands out as the main force to be reckoned with. In cases of profiling, data subjects are granted the right to receive meaningful information about the functionality of the system in use; for fully automated profiling decisions even an explanation has to be given. However, the trade secrets and intellectual property rights involved must be respected as well. These conflicting rights must be balanced against each other; what will be the outcome? Looking back to 1995, when a similar kind of balancing had been decreed in Europe concerning the right of access, Wachter et al. find that according to judicial opinion only generalities of the algorithm had to be disclosed, not specific details. This hardly augurs well for a future right of access let alone to explanation. Thereupon the landscape of IPRs for machine learning is analysed. Spurred by new USPTO guidelines that clarify when inventions are eligible to be patented, the number of patent applications in the US related to ML in general, and to “predictive analytics” in particular, has soared since 2010—and Europe has followed. I conjecture that in such a climate of intensified protection of intellectual property, companies may legitimately claim that the more their application combines several ML assets that, in addition, are useful in multiple sectors, the more value is at stake when confronted with a call for explanation by data subjects. Consequently, the right to explanation may be severely crippled.

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