We introduce the unwarranted associations (UA) framework, a principled methodology for the discovery of unfair, discriminatory, or offensive user treatment in data-driven applications. The UA framework unifies and rationalizes a number of prior attempts at formalizing algorithmic fairness. It uniquely combines multiple investigative primitives and fairness metrics with broad applicability, granular exploration of unfair treatment in user subgroups, and incorporation of natural notions of utility that may account for observed disparities.
We instantiate the UA framework in Fairtest, the first comprehensive tool that helps developers check data-driven applications for unfair user treatment. It enables scalable and statistically rigorous investigation of associations between application outcomes (such as prices or premiums) and sensitive user attributes (such as race or gender). Furthermore, Fairtest provides debugging capabilities that let programmers rule out potential confounders for observed unfair effects.
We report on use of Fairtest to investigate and in some cases address disparate impact, offensive labeling, and uneven rates of algorithmic error in four data-driven applications. As examples, our results reveal subtle biases against older populations in the distribution of error in a predictive health application and offensive racial labeling in an image tagger.