Who’s Watching?

Police are increasingly turning to technology to fight crime. Is there enough oversight?

By Kate Pavao

Winter 2018

What if police knew that a bank robbery happened on the corner of Fourth and Elm, and could use a small plane equipped with tons of tiny cameras that they could review the footage from to see the car pull up with masked robbers inside? A private company actually launched this solution with the Baltimore police in 2016, but that caused a scandal when it was revealed city officials didn’t know about the initiative.

And that’s exactly the problem, says Andrew Ferguson, author of The Rise of Big Data Policing: we aren’t scrutinizing these solutions carefully. “Today, there are far more invasive surveillance technologies changing how police do their jobs, where they go, who they target, and in many ways how they monitor society,” he told Profit. “These changes offer some efficiencies and innovations that are good, and it also offers some risks.” Here’s what he says we should be thinking about.

On Predictive Analytics:

This is actually quite useful for identifying why some particular place might have an environmental risk that could encourage crime or why some person might be taking the wrong path. But the remedy doesn’t have to be policing; it could be social services or it could be adding lighting to a dark area to discourage crime.

On Bad Data:

There’s an inherent difficulty that comes from police officers recording tons of information every day. Errors can be part of any large-scale data system. Also, database incentives could change how particular crimes are coded. If you’ve invested in technologies that are supposed to bring crime down, you want to see results.

On Startups:

Many of these innovations are being driven by private companies—many startups, many innovators. It’s not that law enforcement is coming to the companies and saying, “Hey, we would like the following. Can you build this to our specifications?”

On the Big Question:

The companies are not thinking about what happens when their technology intersects with the existing criminal justice system, a system that’s built and defined by small data or no data. How is this technology going to be able to be used and played out and explained? My hope is that these companies will start inviting data scientists, ethicists, and lawyers in ahead of time to really think through technologies before they get implemented.