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Is Law Enforcement Getting Wiser About Its Use of New Technologies?

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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November 19, 2013

Some leading police officials around the nation seem to be realizing that high-technology surveillance systems need to be deployed with great care, lest they prompt a public backlash. As the Atlantic Cities pointed out in a piece Friday, the Seattle police department has unilaterally pulled the plug on a new citywide mesh surveillance network after a local newspaper highlighted the department’s lack of rules and policies surrounding how the network would be used, and lack of public awareness or input surrounding the system.

“The wireless mesh network will be deactivated until city council approves a draft policy and until there’s an opportunity for vigorous public debate,” said a police spokesman.

All too often when it comes to surveillance technology, capability is driving policy, as my colleague Catherine Crump pointed out recently. But there are signs of hope. For example, Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsay recently spoke on this in an opening address at a major police conference:

Technology is a powerful tool. It will be both the benefactor and the curse for policing. Moving forward we must be thoughtful about technology. We must drive technological solutions to our problems and not be driven by the technologists. We will increasingly face challenges surrounding the issue of individual privacy vs. public security. For example, license plate readers are in use now. They could be the predecessors of facial recognition equipment in patrol cars. We must remind ourselves that, “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it!” We must decide where the limits should be before we face or cross them. We need to be part of that discussion and understand that our first priority is the protection of constitutional rights.

At the same convention, Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, speaking in the context of law enforcement use of social media, sounded a similar theme:

I want to start out by saying that I am not a civil libertarian; I am a law enforcement executive who recognizes “hot stove” issues that exist, and knows what happens when you touch a hot stove: you get burned. So when you get crossed up with the privacy and civil liberties issues, that is a hot stove. And one of the things that we have learned: there’s one thing to know there’s a hot stove and be careful around it. There’s another thing to take an issue like new technology and social media, and not realize there’s a hot stove in the room, where you’re wandering around. And that’s what’s happening across the board in many instances, where you have law enforcement executives such as myself, that are not very attuned to technology or social media. I use email, that’s about the extent of my knowledge and use of social media. But I recognize the dangers of getting too far out of the bounds of what is the proper law enforcement use of social media.…

American citizens are concerned about how our ability to use social media, and how our ability to use technology, are being employed. And I don’t think I would be shocking anyone here to say, if you looked at what is happening with the NSA today, and the scrutiny they are coming under for the abilities they have to collect information, analyze information, share information—and so, that’s their problem. But their scrutiny, that they come under, filters down to us.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, which hosted the convention at which Ramsay and Keenan spoke, last year issued recommendations on drones that (as I noted in an analysis at the time) included detailed recommendations for community engagement before deploying drones. Departments should “engage their community early in the planning process” and provide “an opportunity to review and comment on agency procedures as they are being drafted,” the association recommended.

Speaking of drones, if there is a growing recognition of the need for community input into new policing technologies, I suspect the remarkable outpouring of public concern over domestic surveillance drones may be behind it. Already the ability of police to deploy drones has been subject to regulation in eight states. And as Keenan suggests, the Snowden revelations and the public debate they’ve sparked are probably also provoking some soul-searching by police.

In any case, we can only hope that these statements and actions do indicate a growing recognition within law enforcement leadership that, given the pace of technological development today, the police should not engage in “policymaking by procurement”—i.e. just going out and buying stuff and putting it out on the streets—without public discussion of how those technologies might affect safety and liberty, and democratic decisions about what balance to strike. (And as my colleague Kade Crockford points out, the right balance in America is usually to require a warrant for surveillance such as intensive location tracking.)

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