From cops on the beat to spycams and algorithms

Police departments these days are using the latest technologies in data analytics and surveillance, often without letting either the public or their own higher-ups know about it.  A recent online article in Slate asks whether these public-safety measures are threatening privacy to the extent that instead of Big Brother, we now have to worry about a lot of Little Brothers snooping around.


Consider these cases. 


For the last several years, the Chicago police force has operated a system that does for arrests what a credit score does for loan applications.  Every person arrested gets a computer-generated "threat score" that rates their chances of either committing a crime in the future or being the victim of one.  People with higher threat scores get extra attention such as home visits.  In domestic-abuse cases, this could have the desirable effect of providing more security for an abused wife or girlfriend, and that is certainly a laudable goal.  But as anyone who has had their credit rating fouled up by a rating agency knows, mistakes in these systems can happen.


And in Baltimore, a firm was hired to fly a private plane above the city and take wide-angle high-resolution video with no particular crime scene in mind, just to furnish a God's-eye view of everything going on in the event that some of it turned out to be criminal activity.  When the citizens of Baltimore heard about it, they raised such an outcry that the program was terminated.  But similar technology is available and is being used elsewhere—maybe even in your town.


We already know about police-car dashcams and body cameras, which have been viewed as protecting the rights of citizens as much as aids to police trying to enforce the laws.  But wider-scope systems such as database-generated algorithms and synoptic surveillance not targeted at a specific crime or criminal are new things, and for understandable reasons, some law-enforcement authorities are not being as open as they could be about using them.


There is some justification for this.  One can argue that a novel surveillance method can be more effective if the people being spied on don't know about it.  But this argument is lost on the millions of stores that have prominent signs saying things like, "Smile! You're on TV" and otherwise make no secret that customers are being watched electronically, as a deterrent to shoplifting. 


Also counter to that argument is the notion that in a democracy, citizens have a right to know what methods law-enforcement authorities are using, and to make a considered judgment as to whether the alleged benefits of reduced crime and improved public safety outweigh the potential harm to what remains of our privacy. 


The Slate article treats the fact that there are around 17,000 separate law-enforcement organizations in the U. S. as a problem, because any given location may be under the authority of several of them, and sometimes it's a big headache even to figure out who to ask about these things.  But the Big Brother reference I began with comes from George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, which featured "telescreens" everywhere that not only projected images of a Stalin-like figure named Big Brother, but reminded everyone that Big Brother was watching, through hidden cameras.  For most of the novel's lifetime, nobody worried about universal spycams becoming a reality, because the only way for every citizen to be watched was to hire enough people to sit there and watch the screens, which would have meant as late as the 1960s, it would have taken maybe 50 or 100 million people monitoring the 200 million or so U. S. citizens—clearly an impractical project. 

Plaza George Orwell, Barcelona..jpg
CCTV in George Orwell Place, Barcelona. By FibercoolCC BY 2.0, Link

But now with digital storage, face-recognition algorithms, and artificial intelligence, spying on everybody in the U. S. all the time is still a remote possibility, but not nearly as remote as it used to be.  Things have reportedly progressed a lot farther along these lines in Great Britain, where it's not possible to walk outside in London for more than a few feet without becoming a feature in somebody's surveillance camera somewhere.


In such a highly spied-upon situation, it's a good thing that there are 17,000 different policing authorities instead of one big one, as George Orwell imagined in 1984.  Even if a few of them go overboard, the damage will be limited to that authority's geographic region.


But this isn't an argument for complacency.  Actions that affect the privacy of the average law-abiding citizen, especially when funded with that law-abiding citizen's taxes, need to be made known to said law-abiding citizen.  And so when police departments and other government-run security organizations start doing wholesale data gathering on innocent and guilty alike, this kind of thing needs to be advertised or made public in some way that brings the awareness of the activity to those who are directly affected by it.


Abuses of these technologies can happen.  It's probably because policing authority is so diffused in this country that we don't have more scandals relating to the abuse of surveillance technology.  The FBI, one of our few national-scope law-enforcement agencies, has been involved in a few such cases, but eventually Congress or someone else outside the executive branch manages to blow the whistle on them and correct the abuse. 


But many municipalities don't have such a mechanism to ensure that law-enforcement agencies inform the public they are watching that certain technologies are being used.  The Slate article cites a program sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union called "Community Control over Police Surveillance" that can serve as a model of accountability.  I haven't studied the ACLU's efforts in this regard and can't vouch for its effectiveness, but it would probably be a good place to start.


Privacy is a much-neglected right in some areas of U. S. life.  We have gradually been trained by private interests to say good-by to it whenever we log online and do a search or buy a product.  But in going about our daily lives, and especially in our homes, it is a valuable thing to know that one is not being watched by a stranger who could, if he chose, use information gathered about you to complicate your life in some way.  At the very least, if such things happen, the people who are paying the taxes that pay for the systems need to know what they're buying—and refuse to buy it if they don't like it. 

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.


Sources:  The article "The Fragmented Surveillance State" by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson appeared on the Slate website at  More information about the ACLU's Community Control over Police Surveillance program can be found at  And George Orwell's novel 1984 was published in 1949, when television was just beginning to appear in large numbers of private homes in the U. S.


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