David McGuire
David McGuire, chair of the Connecticut Advisory Committee To U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, discusses use of algorithms in state government

Civil rights advocates and a group of lawmakers called Tuesday for changes to Connecticut’s Freedom of Information laws in order to shed more light on the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence by state agencies. 

Legislators and university professors joined members of the Connecticut Advisory Committee To U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during a morning press conference to release the committee’s report on the civil rights implications of algorithm use by state government. 

The report sites concerns that algorithms and AI could be used to support automated decision-making that perpetuate long standing inequities. David McGuire, the committee’s chair, said the group learned through public hearings that Connecticut agencies were using automated decision-making processes.

“There are some uses of algorithms by the state that are very, very important,” McGuire said. “In the area of education: who wins a school lottery for example. Department of Administrative Services, how they choose job applicants to move forward. These are areas where civil rights are really being implicated because they are potentially using algorithms that are either using data sets that are flawed or the algorithms themselves are set up in ways that are perpetuating bias.”

Asked for more examples of algorithm use in state government, McGuire said examples were difficult to come by given limitations to the state’s FOI statute which includes an exemption for trade secrets often cited by state agencies when asked for information on their use of algorithms. 

“The lack of knowledge around this is really the problem. We don’t have a clear sense of what algorithms the state is using and for what reasons,” he said. 

A 2022 report by the Media Freedom & Information Access Clinic found that the state Department of Education had spent more than $650,000 to acquire an algorithm called the Gale – Shapley deferred acceptance algorithm, which it used to assign students to schools in Hartford. 

The agency denied requests for information, including by media outlets like CT Public, about its source code or how it worked. Those requests are subject to a pending case before the state Freedom of Information Commission.

According to the report, algorithms have also been used by DAS and by the Department of Children and Families to reduce incidents in which a child suffers a life-threatening episode. Information requests are often denied in whole or in part under the trade secrets exemption, the report said.

On Tuesday, McGuire and others called for legislative changes to the FOI law to explicitly provide public access to information on state government use of algorithms. 

“There is an FOI system here in Connecticut that is really not well suited for the public data information about the government’s use of algorithms,” he said.

The state legislature is currently considering a bill to take stock of Connecticut’s use of algorithms and artificial intelligence in government. The bill, which advanced out of the General Law Committee in March, will not address exemptions to the state FOI law. Sen. James Maroney, a Milford Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said that change would need to come from a separate legislative committee.

However, the bill will take proactive steps to assess the issue by requiring a public inventory of automated systems and setting in motion a process to draft policies on how they should be used. 

Maroney said it was important to get a clear picture of how automated systems interact with state government before they are being relied on to make critical decisions based on unknown criteria. 

“Too many times we let the horse get out of the barn before we regulate it and I think that as we’re seeing AI and changes come so quickly now, it’s important we get some guardrails in the ground because if we don’t do something now, it’ll get out and it will be harder to regulate it,” he said.

The bill has bipartisan support. During the press conference, Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, said House Republicans wanted to ensure that data privacy regulations applied to private companies under a recent law were extended to state government agencies as well. 

However, the legislation also comes with a roughly $3.6 million price tag over two years, according to an Office of Fiscal Analysis report. Maroney said proponents were considering ways to reduce the costs including delaying deadlines included in the law. 

Maroney and others said that algorithms, AI, and automated services would likely become vital tools of state government as time went on.