This past Sunday's New York Times Magazine included its annual look at the "Year in Ideas," and this year's edition featured Chicago's own Lior Strahilevitz. The article by Chris Shea is reproduced below, or you can check out the original.
Walking down a city street at night, you can already use your smartphone to check out reviews of the restaurant you’re considering. Should you also be able to check whether any of those teenagers a block away and closing have criminal records?
Yes, suggests Lior Strahilevitz, a professor at the University of Chicago. In fact, your phone might even automatically download that information from the teenagers’ phones.
An invasion of privacy? By many standards, yes, but consider current practice, Strahilevitz argued in a pair of articles this year in the law reviews of Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. Most people encountering teenagers size them up by judging their clothing, demeanor and ethnicity — they “profile.” Give people more information, and they can make better, more individualized judgments.
In some circumstances, Strahilevitz admitted — like blind auditions for orchestras — stripping away personal information can reduce discrimination. But in many others, privacy advocates get the link between discrimination and the availability of personal information precisely backward. Take laws that prevent employers from learning about applicants’ criminal records. Because African-Americans are disproportionately imprisoned, such laws are often viewed as blows against discrimination. But Strahilevitz cited research that found that, in the absence of such laws, companies that did background checks on applicants hired 8 percent more African-Americans than those that didn’t do the checks. The latter employers seemed to be discriminating “statistically” — lacking hard data about penal histories, they made more decisions based on skin color. As an alternative, Strahilevitz would subsidize the hiring of actual ex-cons, rather than trying to hide their status.
Less contentiously, Strahilevitz would also expand the “How’s My Driving?” programs used by trucking firms to cover everyone with a driver’s license. Insurance companies currently use broad demographic categories to set rates — the cautious teenage boy is out of luck. If you could phone in reports of bad driving, he’d get a break and the reckless middle-aged would pay their fair share. At last.