June 26, 2014 | 3:35 pm
The defenders and promulgators of data-driven, predictive policing — which is meant to anticipate crimes before they happen — face a PR problem: reassuring the public against fears that such methods are ushering in a totalitarian future reminiscent of the science-fiction film Minority Report.
Concerns about preemptive crime fighting through data hoarding and analysis are hard to assuage, however, because they are perfectly valid.
A lengthy feature published in the Guardian on Wednesday looked at the permeation of data-driven analysis in the LAPD and other municipal police forces. “As the ability to collect, store and analyze data becomes cheaper and easier, law enforcement agencies all over the world are adopting techniques that harness the potential of technology to provide more and better information,” it noted. “But while these new tools have been welcomed by law enforcement agencies, they’re raising concerns about privacy, surveillance and how much power should be given over to computer algorithms.”
The Guardian’s report describes an LAPD war room full of video screens. They show incidents of crime in real time; multiple newscasts; the seismic effects of earthquakes; and sections of the city as small as 500 square feet where algorithmic data-crunching indicates that crimes are most likely to take place.
At first glance, such systems seem benignly empirical. Why wait for a robbery or a shooting when algorithms working beyond the capabilities of human intuition can help prevent these incidents in advance? But such an understanding wrongly assumes the neutrality of information. The picture of crime to come is based on pre-existing police data, which we know to be biased and flawed.
Consider the background of this trend. During Bill “broken windows” Bratton’s first tenure as police commissioner in the mid-1990s, the NYPD introduced a system called CompStat. It wasn’t a computer system but a statistical management tool that processed crime and arrest reports and other police records. In many ways, it amounted to the birth of predictive policing.
The idea was that data wouldn’t lie, and that a close look at this honest, pure data could prevent crimes before they needed to be solved. Of course, no police business — on the streets or in the stats — is so pure. Data theorist and artist Ingrid Burrington has calledthe false promise of neutrality an “ideology of data,” noting that the methodology behind information collection and analysis can distort the picture of reality they represent.
The NYPD’s targeting of poor and black neighborhoods for easy quota-filling outfitted CompStat with inherently biased data. CompStat’s numbers in turn justified the quota-chasing and underpinned a discriminatory stop-and-frisk practice that targeted statistical hot spots. The not-so-neutral data helped establish a self-fulfilling system of profiling that branded entire communities “criminal.”
It’s no coincidence that the most policed areas in American cities are the highest crime areas. A “crime” is, basically, what and where the police say it is. The resulting statistics only serve to reinforce the focus, which has a criminalizing effect on residents of the area by processing them within the criminal justice system from an early age. The result is a police practice that essentially keeps whole locales and minority groups in everyday opposition to law enforcement. If predictive policing were effective in ending crime, things would look differently.
“This is not Minority Report,” P Jeffrey Brantingham, a professor of anthropology at UCLA who helped develop the predictive policing system that is licensed to dozens of police departments under the name PredPol, remarked to the Guardian of his brainchild. “Minority Report is about predicting who will commit a crime before they commit it. This is about predicting where and when crime is most likely to occur, not who will commit it.”
Brantingham’s distinction between policing a place and policing a people speaks volumes. Perhaps his system doesn’t target particular individuals as likely perpetrators of crime. But places are not stopped, frisked, and detained — people are. And places are not vacant terrains where crimes do or do not happen. They are homes, neighborhoods, communities — they are populated.
Policing where and when a crime is most likely to occur entails predicting what sort of people might commit it. It’s akin to the profiling entailed in the Obama administration’s use of “disposition matrices” to target drone strikes. Consistently, specific individuals are not the targets of counter-terror drone strikes. Instead, problematically, areas and behaviors and demographic factors are used to determine where drones should strike.
As Brantingham noted, predictive policing hasn’t yet amounted to a Minority Report-style nightmare. But something equally pernicious is at play: a system of policing under the pretense of neutrality, which assures that certain oppressed groups remain designated and punished as criminal.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter:@natashalennard
UPDATE: EFF Fights Back Against Oakland’s Disturbing Domain Awareness Center
UPDATE- March 5, 2014:
After an encouraging debate at the Oakland City Council meeting on February 18, EFF has submitted another letter opposing Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center (DAC). The DAC is a potent surveillance system that could enable ubiquitous privacy and civil liberties violations against Oakland residents. The city appeared set to approve a resolution that would have handed the City Administrator authority to sign a contract for completion of the project. However, after strenuous discussion, Councilmember Desley Brooks made a motion to delay the vote for two weeks in order to get more information about the potential civil liberties and financial impacts of the DAC. The council passed the motion with 6 yes votes and 2 abstentions.
Phase I of the DAC, funded by a Department of Homeland Security grant, is already operational. It integrates Port security cameras and an intrusion detection system with City of Oakland traffic cameras, city geographic information system (GIS) mapping, and a gun shot detector called ShotSpotter. The information from these various data sources is integrated using “Physical Security Information Management” PSIM. This allows law enforcement and other agencies to access and analyze all of these data sources through a single user interface. This means DAC staff can look at a single screen and see various video and information feeds at once, allowing much more invasive surveillance of Oaklanders.
At the February 18 meeting, speakers raised myriad issues. One of those was the racial profiling of Yemeni, Muslim, and African-American communities already happening in Oakland. Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a community organizer, talked about how law enforcement already targets the thousands of Muslims in Oakland, stating, “I represent people who are afraid to come here.” Fred Hampton, Jr., son of the murdered Black Panther Party member Fred Hampton, reminded the council about the legacy of surveillance and targeting experienced by African-American activists.
At issue now is whether the Oakland City Council will approve an expansion of the system to include more data sources, considering all the outstanding questions. The council seemed to hear the concerns raised by community members and asked a lot of their own questions at the meeting. The council directed staff to provide further information. Unfortunately, as EFF’s letter states, the most recent staff report:
Another major concern expressed at the meeting was the connection between the Domain Awareness Center and other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. While city staff has repeatedly assured the public and the Oakland City Council that there are no information sharing agreements with federal agencies, the city already works several of them. EFF’s letter addresses this:
implying that there is any sort of firewall between DAC information and the federal government is disingenuous at best. As has been pointed out to the Council, Oakland already shares information with the FBI through its participation in a Joint Terrorism Task Force. Similarly, the Oakland Police Department participates in the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), a Department of Homeland Security program. In fact, Renee Domingo is part of the “Approval Authority” for UASI. The Approval authority “provides policy direction and is responsible for final decisions regarding projects and funding,” to UASI.
Implying that the DAC has no relationship to fusion centers is also disingenuous. UASI is one of the primary funders for the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), the regional Bay Area fusion center. Furthermore, the DAC itself has been “featured” regarding information sharing in relationship to NCRIC and other federal agencies; in a 2013 port security workshop that included Department of Homeland Security, NCRIC and Port of Oakland officials and brought in other federal agencies, law enforcement, and private interests, the DAC and NCRIC were used as models for information sharing relationships. In fact, pursuant to City Council resolutions, the Oakland Police Department and Fire Department staffed the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center in 2011 and 2012.
EFF joins the ACLU of Northern California, National Lawyers Guild and the Oakland Privacy Working Group (OPWG) in opposing the DAC. A group letter from OPWG has amassed over 35 signatories, including faith leaders, political party leaders, and community groups from the Arab, Muslim, Asian, and African-American communities. The Council has the opportunity to halt the DAC now, and to address the existing systems in place:
A no vote today is not the last step. The Council must then take responsibility for addressing Phase 1 of the DAC. EFF warns the Council that it must seriously consider how exactly a port-only DAC will work, taking into account the serious technical and legal concerns that accompany the DAC even as it currently exists. EFF again reminds the Council that any financial consequences of limiting the DAC are no reason to pursue a course of action that will seriously endanger civil liberties in Oakland. EFF urges the Council to consider the egregious lack of information and transparency that has surrounded this project and to vote against any expansion of the DAC.