Algorithmic citizenship

Updated: Aug 29, 2018

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

In an interview with From the Square John Cheney-Lippold, author of We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves, recently coined the term jus algoritmi – a variation on the concepts of ius sanguinis and ius soli, referring to the acquisition of nationality by descent and by birth in a particular territory, respectively. This algorithmic citizenship is a mode of identification that governments use to determine users’ citizenship status when no documentation is available. This audacious algorithmic identification attempts to recreate the idea of the “ideal citizen”, and thus the “ideal foreigner”, through an algorithmic analysis of available data: where one’s IP address is, to who one talks to and even to what language one speaks. In terms of privacy, NSA documents have shown that a user can be legally surveilled if their traffic is deemed to be “51% confidence foreign”. Because one’s “citizenship” is based on data—and only data (and not some permanent identity card of birth certificate)—it changes with every person you talk to, every time you travel abroad/cross borders, and even every time you change which language you speak.

The idea of algorithmic citizenship, and ‘dataisme’ more generally, rests in his view on an overly optimistic belief in the possibility to describe reality through data – a belief which also presupposes that ‘more data’ invariably leads to ‘more truth’. Cheney-Lippold stresses, however, to what extent data are sometimes plainly wrong, incomplete, or lack proper context, and therefore essentially draw an incomplete picture. The idea of algorithmic citizenship has been artistically visualised by James Bridle through Citizen-Ex.

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