Tech advances in policing can fight but also foster racial discrimination

·3 min read

From Palantir to Ring, to body cameras and GPS databases, technology has transformed policing — and incorporated the biases of its creators.

Why it matters: These advances can fight but also foster racial discrimination.

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Details: The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police was caught on a teen's cell phone video. Images of a white officer kneeling on Floyd's neck sparked worldwide protests and a national reckoning.

  • The video went viral on various social media platforms as it was viewed and shared millions of times.

  • Darnella Frazier was later awarded a special citation by the Pulitzer Prize Board.

Yes, but: Law enforcement agencies also use technology that critics say reinforces racial bias.

Facial recognition: Law enforcement agencies have long used forms of facial recognition technology, but in recent years better technology has been adopted by departments in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities.

  • Forms of biometric security can confirm an individual’s identity using faces in photos and videos or in real time. A 2016 study by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law found that 1 in 2 American adults is in a law enforcement face recognition network.

  • But activists say the technology can misidentify people with dark skin and violate privacy rights. A coalition of nearly 70 civil rights and advocacy groups in June urged Congress to ban the technology in some places.

Surveillance apps: Home security products, like Amazon's Ring video doorbells and Google's Nest, allow residents to record images and video footage at their doorsteps but also from nearby sidewalks and streets.

  • Ring’s affiliated crime reporting app, Neighbors, allows people to upload images that sometimes misidentify people of color walking dogs.

  • Users have also posted racist language to describe Black and Latino residents. While the Neighbors app bans harassment and bullying, it appears impossible to stop these problems effectively through existing monitoring.

  • Ring has partnerships with around 1,800 U.S. police departments that can request camera footage from Ring doorbells without a warrant. The company declined to say how many users had footage obtained by police.

  • The American Civil Liberties Union said such a system amounts to spying on residents and called growing partnerships between such apps and law enforcement troubling.

Real-time crime centers: A growing number of police departments are launching surveillance hubs so officers can use an expanding range of GPS, monitoring and database technologies.

  • The centers work as central nodes and control rooms for automated license plate readers, gunshot detection, real-time social media monitoring, predictive policing algorithms and a network of video cameras.

  • The Atlas of Surveillance project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno have identified more than 80 such centers in 29 states.

  • Critics say the centers allow police to needlessly monitor peaceful protests, bicycle races or other large gatherings by people of color.

  • “They basically can record all of our associations and where we go, who we see, where we slept, over time because they record all the location data,” Tessa D’Arcangelew, organizing program manager at the ACLU of Northern California, told KTXL-TV in Sacramento, California.

Policing the police: Some mobile phone apps seek to stop rather than simply document deadly police encounters with people of color — including notifying family and lawyers about potential violations in real time.

  • The Cop Watch Video Recorder app opens with Siri on iPhones, automatically beginning filming and sending footage to the cloud. The app films in real time in case the police officer seizes or breaks the phone.

  • The Legal Equalizer app captures police encounters after the user is pulled over, automatically notifying loved ones and providing basic legal information on the spot.

  • The Mobile Justice app, available in all 50 states, records and submits police incidents directly to local chapters of the ACLU. The app also lets users send videos via text messaging to family and private attorneys.

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