Law enforcement: Question the tech sector's motives

Perhaps there are application areas where law enforcement technology should not be used, one of the witnesses at a recent Justice and Home Affairs Committee meeting warned. Experts from the US, New Zealand and Belgium  discussed the challenges of using technology in law enforcement in their country. and the risks and benefits to the UK.

Colin Gavaghan, Chair of the Advisory Panel on emergent technologies at New Zealand Police, said that in New Zealand, there was a high degree of trust in the government. People unaffected by the deployment of profiling software are unlikely to notice how it infringes their civil liberties.

Nevertheless, as Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia pointed out: “The pandemic made people more aware of the technologies deployed in times where they may have considered themselves law abiding, innocent citizens, and then they are caught through facial recognition having a cup of coffee with more than one person.”

Who is accountable?

The challenge for governments is balancing the use of technology to support what it needs to achieve, with privacy and civil liberties.

Rosamunde Elise Van Brakel, research professor in surveillance studies at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, spoke about governance, accountability and the need both for law enforcement and the public to understand how the technology supports decision-making in law enforcement. Before investing in technology, she said police departments need to ask: “How does the technology empower the police to fulfil their societal goal? This question is not asked enough. There is not enough reflection on how it helps the police.”

What became clear from the remarks the witnesses made, is that the use of technology in law enforcement is not something that is well understood by police departments. They often not only lack the technical expertise, but may also struggle to identify the outcomes they want to achieve.

The private sector has used this as an opportunity to sell products and services to support law enforcement. What is clear, at least from how Elizabeth Joh, Martin Luther King Jr professor of law at the University of California Davis School of Law, described the situation in the US, is that technology providers are playing a high stakes game. Often products may be offered for free on a one year trial, after which time the police department is locked into a proprietary system and no easy way to move to an alternative provider.

Along with privacy concerns and bias, the government must take a long hard look at whether the technology skills and know-how to develop law enforcement technology is something to hand over to the private sector.

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