I just wrapped up teaching a course called Technology in Criminal Justice, and it was a real eye-opener for both me and my students. One theme that became absolutely clear was that technology cannot replace human intervention, no matter how much we’d like that to be the case. At least not yet, it can’t. It also can’t save us from our inherent human fallibility.
Everywhere we look, though, we see governments and vendors touting technologies as a primary way to thwart crime. The downsides of any of these technologies are rarely discussed, except when something goes wrong. For example, ARS Technica recently reported on thousands of paroled sex offenders easily disabling the GPS tracking devices they were ordered to wear. Ugh.
But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Debacles such as the Department of Homeland Security’s failed multi-million dollar program to use technology to secure the US-Mexican border highlight the sometimes overwhelming management challenges of developing such complex technologies.
Smaller failures, such as have occurred with facial recognition technology, emergency dispatch systems, tasers, drones – even police radio systems – highlight the many ways that an over-reliance on technology can cause as many problems as it solves.
In fact, the false sense of security these technologies engender is making society less safe, not more.
We trust that any technology the criminal justice system employs is not only going to work, it’s going to be an improvement over what came before. In other words, more technology equals more safety in many people’s minds. The fact that technology is so fallible and can fail at the worst possible time puts us at increased risk.
I’m no Luddite, but I am a proponent of thoughtful and careful implementation of new technologies. I’m also a staunch proponent of accounting for the human component of any new endeavor, be it a technology or any other innovation.
So, what are your thoughts on technology in criminal justice: boon or boondoggle?