Browse Definitions:

algorithmic transparency

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Algorithmic transparency is openness about the purposes, structure and underlying actions of the algorithms used to search for, process and deliver data.

Transparency in algorithms could allow us to see why we receive the content we do on Facebook and other sites whose content varies for different users, indicating how and why some posts are made more or less visible and why some pages get greater visibility and therefore more hits.

Transparency, in general, is adopted – at least in part -- to demonstrate scrupulous behavior, essentially showing that one has nothing to hide. In algorithms, as in other areas, a lack of transparency can facilitate behaviors that would not stand up well to public scrutiny. Algorithms in search engines, for example, are supposed to be designed to deliver the most relevant content for the search query, perhaps personalized to the user’s interests. However, search algorithms have often been implemented in ways that deliver skewed or discriminatory results. Results may be skewed to favor the search provider’s business interests or to discriminate against particular individuals and demographics.

In the case of search giant Google, after complaints were made to the Federal Trade Commission, FTC staffers did some research. They found that Google’s algorithm generally caused its own services to appear ahead of others in search results, even if the quality of their listing was inferior and received fewer clicks. This finding included Google's flight search tool as well as shopping results. The FTC also discovered that Google scraped content from competitors’ sites and presented it prominently in Google answers, for example, while simultaneously burying the competitor’s site in the results. Despite these findings, however, the FTC decided the actions were not anti-competitive in nature and that they helped consumers and stimulated market competition.

Google has also come under fire for demonstrating bias unrelated to their direct business interests. A 2013 Harvard study reported that Google searches for names that might considered "black-sounding," such as Trevon James, generated more ads indicative of an individual that has an arrest record. In another case, searches by female job seekers resulted in the more prestigious jobs being filtered out of the search engine results (SERP). In these cases, as well as the business-related issues, the algorithm would have to contain some element that caused those results. It is unlikely that those elements would be included in the formulation if all the details of the algorithm were going to be publicly available.

Algorithmic transparency is also central to open security, an approach to safeguarding software, hardware and other information system components with methods whose design and details are publicly available. The philosophy open security is based on Kerckhoff’s principle, which maintains that cryptographic system should be secure by design rather than obscurity. The mathematician Claude Shannon further developed that idea, stating that "one ought to design systems under the assumption that the enemy will immediately gain full familiarity with them." In other words, a system such as an algorithm might as well be transparent to begin with.

This was last updated in September 2015

Continue Reading About algorithmic transparency

Start the conversation

Send me notifications when other members comment.

By submitting you agree to receive email from TechTarget and its partners. If you reside outside of the United States, you consent to having your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States. Privacy

Please create a username to comment.


File Extensions and File Formats

Powered by:



  • password

    A password is an unspaced sequence of characters used to determine that a computer user requesting access to a computer system is...

  • adware

    Adware is any software application in which advertising banners are displayed while a program is running.

  • botnet

    A botnet is a collection of internet-connected devices, which may include PCs, servers, mobile devices and internet of things ...



  • call tree

    A call tree -- sometimes referred to as a phone tree -- is a telecommunications chain for notifying specific individuals of an ...

  • mass notification system (MNS)

    A mass notification system is a platform that sends one-way messages to inform employees and the public of an emergency.

  • disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS)

    One approach to a strong disaster recovery plan is DRaaS, where companies offload data replication and restoration ...


  • data migration

    Data migration is the process of transferring data between data storage systems, data formats or computer systems.

  • compact disc (CD)

    A compact disc is a portable storage medium that can be used for recording, storing and playing back audio, video and other data ...

  • secondary storage

    Secondary storage is used to protect inactive data written from a primary storage array to a nonvolatile tier of disk, flash or ...


  • SSD RAID (solid-state drive RAID)

    SSD RAID (solid-state drive RAID) is a methodology commonly used to protect data by distributing redundant data blocks across ...

  • Tier 0

    Tier 0 (tier zero) is a level of data storage that is faster, and perhaps more expensive, than any other level in the storage ...

  • PCIe SSD (PCIe solid-state drive)

    A PCIe SSD (PCIe solid-state drive) is a high-speed expansion card that attaches a computer to its peripherals.


  • RESTful API

    A RESTful application program interface breaks down a transaction to create a series of small modules, each of which addresses an...

  • cloud storage infrastructure

    Cloud storage infrastructure is the hardware and software framework that supports the computing requirements of a private or ...

  • Zadara VPSA and ZIOS

    Zadara Storage provides block, file or object storage with varying levels of compute and capacity through its ZIOS and VPSA ...