Tag Archives: civil rights

Justice Systems Run by Machines: predictive policing

crime

PredPol Places [a US company, has developed] one of a range of tools using better data, more finely crunched, to predict crime. They seem to promise better law-enforcement. But they also bring worries about privacy, and of justice systems run by machines not people.  Criminal offences, like infectious disease, form patterns in time and space….

Cops working with predictive systems respond to call-outs as usual, but when they are free they return to the spots which the computer suggests. Officers may talk to locals or report problems, like broken lights or unsecured properties, that could encourage crime. Within six months of introducing predictive techniques in the Foothill area of Los Angeles, in late 2011, property crimes had fallen 12% compared with the previous year; in neighbouring districts they rose 0.5%…

For now, the predictive approach works best against burglary and thefts of vehicles or their contents. These common crimes provide plenty of historical data to chew on. But adding extra types of information, such as details of road networks, can fine-tune forecasts further. Offenders like places where vulnerable targets are simple to spot, access is easy and getaways speedy, says Shane Johnson, a criminologist at University College London. Systems devised by IBM, a technology firm, watch how big local events, proximity to payday and the weather affect the frequency and location of lawbreaking. “Muggers don’t like getting wet,” says Ron Fellows, IBM’s expert.

Predicting and forestalling crime does not solve its root causes. Positioning police in hotspots discourages opportunistic wrongdoing, but may encourage other criminals to move to less likely areas. And while data-crunching may make it easier to identify high-risk offenders—about half of American states use some form of statistical analysis to decide when to parole prisoners—there is little that it can do to change their motivation.

Misuse and overuse of data can amplify biases….But mathematical models might make policing more equitable by curbing prejudice…

This sort of transparency about what goes on in predictive systems, and what their assumptions are, may also be a partial solution to worries voiced by Andrew Ferguson, a law professor in Washington, DC. Mr Ferguson fears that judges and juries could come to place too much credence in the accuracy of crime prediction tools, jeopardising justice.

The legal limits on using social media to fish out likely wrongdoers, or create files on them, are contested. Most laws governing police investigations pre-date social networking, and some forces assert that all information posted to public forums is fair game. But Jamie Bartlett of Demos, a British think-tank, says citizens and police forces need clearer guidance about how to map physical-world privacy rights onto online spaces. He thinks gathering information about how someone behaves on social sites ought to require the same clearance needed to monitor them doggedly in public places. Officers who register anonymously or pseudonymously to read content, or send web crawlers to trawl sites against their owner’s wishes, would require yet more supervision.

Identifying true villains among the oddballs and loudmouths found by social-media searches is tricky. Most police efforts are embryonic. Evgeny Morozov, an academic and technology writer, thinks the privacy-conscious have more to fear from crime detection algorithms cooked up by social networks themselves. Some of those firms already alert investigators when they suspect users of soliciting minors. Unlike the cops they employ clever coders who can process private messages and other data that police may access only with a court order.

These projects make life difficult for many criminals. But smart ones use the internet to make predictions of their own. Nearly 80% of previously arrested burglars surveyed in 2011 by Friedland, a security firm, said information drawn from social media helps thieves plan coups. Status updates and photographs generate handy lists of tempting properties with absent owners. It does not take a crystal ball to work out what comes next.

Predictive policing: Don’t even think about it, Economist,July 20, 2013, at 24

Three Activists and their Twitter Accounts

Internet map.  Image from wikipedia

A federal appeals court ruled Friday (Jan. 25, 2012)  (pdf) that prosecutors can demand Twitter account information of certain users in their criminal probe into the disclosure of classified documents on WikiLeaks.  The three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also said the government’s reasons as to why it is seeking the information can remain sealed.

The case involves three Twitter account holders with some connection to the secret-busting WikiLeaks website. They had argued that forcing Twitter to cooperate with the investigation by turning over data amounts to an invasion of privacy and has a chilling effect on the free speech rights of Twitter users.

The federal panel in Richmond rejected their appeal and affirmed a magistrate’s court order that Twitter must turn over limited account information to prosecutors. The court said it weighed the right of public access against the need to keep an investigation secret. The appeals court agreed with the magistrate that the government’s interest in keeping the documents secret outweigh the right to public access.

Prosecutors have said federal law specifically allows them to seek account information as a routine investigative tool. Specifically, the Stored Communications Act allows them to obtain certain electronic data without a search warrant or a demonstration of probable cause. The government must only show that it has a reasonable belief that the records it seeks are relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.  “This is essentially a reasonable suspicion standard,” the court wrote.  Under the Stored Communications Act, the government can also keep sealed documents related to their investigation from the subscribers. The appeals panel concluded the subscribers had no First Amendment right to access the documents. Prosecutors submitted their rationale for seeking the Twitter information to U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Carroll Buchanan but it was kept secret and sealed also.

The court wrote that the “government’s interests in maintaining secrecy of its investigation, preventing potential subjects from being tipped off, or altering behavior to thwart the government’s ongoing investigation, outweighed” the subscribers’ claims.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, representing the Twitter users, said the government can use those IP addresses as a sort of virtual tracking device to identify a specific computer used by an account holder and with it the user’s physical location.

The appeals panel also allows the government to keep secret any similar orders it sought from other social media sites.

“This case shows just how easy it is for the government to obtain information about what people are doing on the Internet, and it highlights the need for our electronic privacy laws to catch up with technology,” said ACLU attorney Aden Fine. “The government should not be able to get private information like this without getting a warrant and also satisfying the standard required by the First Amendment, and it shouldn’t be able to do so in secret except in unusual circumstances”

The original order issued in December 2010 at prosecutors’ request also sought Twitter account information from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who faces life in prison if he’s convicted of indirectly aiding the enemy by leaking U.S. secrets while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.  Neither Assange nor Manning was a party in the lawsuit challenging the legality of the Twitter order.

WikiLeaks Case: U.S. Appeals Court Rules On Investigation, Huffington Post, Jan. 25, 2013

Subduing the masses–from heat rays to the dialogue police

The Roman emperors’ Praetorian Guard used cavalry and swords against stone-throwers. Their latter-day counterparts (human and equine) are better protected, with goggles, shields and other kit made of lightweight, flame-resistant, unshatterable and stab-proof materials.

They also have more ways of disrupting the rioters. Police in India spray unruly crowds with coloured water: stained and sodden agitators are easier to identify. America’s forces have developed (but not used) a “heat ray” designed to clear crowds by painfully zapping the skin. The unfamiliar tones of classical music can disperse loiterers, while big sound-blasters, known as “long-range acoustic devices” (LRADS), have been deployed against protesters in some American states. At a cost of up to $30,000 they can emit sound at 150-plus decibels (like a roaring jet engine at close range). Israel has a fancier version known as the “Scream” that affects the inner ear and induces nausea. When ochlophonics fail, authorities there have been known to douse Palestinian protesters with “skunk bombs” of smelly liquid.

Eyes are as vulnerable as ears and noses. A firm called Intelligent Optical Systems (Light Emitting Diode-Incapacitator, LEDI), based in California, is developing, with government backing, a strobe torch that makes targets dizzy and disoriented (at least within a range of 15 metres). Laser Energetics, in New Jersey, sells “Dazer Lasers” that emit a green beam capable of dazzling people up to 2.4km away.

Older methods may have political baggage. Water cannons are disliked in America because of their association with police brutality during the civil-rights era. The penchant for military-style responses is stronger in those continental European countries (and their colonies) where a paramilitary gendarmerie backs up a civic constabulary. The soldierly approach dates from Napoleonic times, when such forces browbeat conquered peasants into accepting the physical and symbolic power of the French state. Nowadays such forces are readier to fight protesters with distance weapons (such as rubber bullets) rather than grappling with them at close quarters, as British bobbies do.

Subtler methods can work too. Protests in Europe against Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2009 quickly turned violent—but not in Sweden. A special unit in Stockholm, known as the Dialogue Police, is credited with this success. “They have legitimacy in the eyes of the community,” says Clifford Stott, an expert in crowd behaviour at the University of Liverpool, “because they facilitate peaceful protest, they don’t carry guns and they can’t arrest people.” Something for the ochlos and ochlophobes to ponder, as the cities smoulder.

New riot-control technology:The sound and the fury, Economist, Aug. 13, 2011, at 56