Posts Tagged ‘surveillance’

Several weeks ago, Jon Evans posted a great piece on TechCrunch about the techno-militarization of policing in the U.S.  Although he’s certainly not the first to raise such concerns, he provided a nice summary of the primary issues involved.

He made the point, for example, that even though crime is at historically low levels nationwide, police departments everywhere are investing heavily in new crime-fighting technology. Everything from high-tech mass-surveillance systems and other types of security software, to drones, and even military tanks, are being purchased for use in everyday domestic law enforcement situations.

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

Evans isn’t bashing the police or their need for safety equipment, either. It’s subtler that that:

It’s not that it’s bad for the authorities to use new technology. A lot of the time it’s an excellent idea. The NSA wants to listen in on high-confidence bad-guy cell-phone conversations in Yemen and Somalia? Fair enough. You can make a case for many aspects of Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center. And I’m a big fan of always-on chest/helmet cameras for police and others, for example, at least in theory … although of course, in practice, the authorities don’t like it at all when that footage gets out to the public.

But simply transposing military technology into the civil realm — or foreign surveillance techniques and tech into the domestic arena — seems really hard to justify to me, especially when violent crime is at a 40-year low across America… which is probably because of less lead, not more cops (Emphasis added).

One of his points here is that more gear, more tech, and more weaponry is hard to justify in a time of tight budgets and low crime. But that’s only part of the story.

On the other side, of course, are those who say that military gear is the right way to protect police officers who go into highly volatile and dangerous situations, as SWAT officers often do. If the federal government is willing to fund a tank or armored personnel carrier for such situations, then it makes perfect sense to buy them. Never mind that the equipment will be rarely used – it’s there if and when we need it.

One driver of the ever increasing perceived need for high-tech police equipment, though, is almost certainly related to human factors within police culture itself, especially the para-military nature of many departments. A thread of militarism exists and is encouraged among many officers from the very start of their careers. And the dangers – both real and perceived – of police work can certainly lead to an “Us versus Them” mentality that lends itself to an increased desire for more equipment to combat the bad guys. That’s the human side of policing.

The spectre of terrorism, as remote as the likelihood is in most jurisdictions, is another driver of this phenomenon. Even in small towns, where crime rates are extraordinarily low, fear of terrorism has lead agencies to seek federal grants to purchase military equipment for use by local police. According to one article from 2011 about the Fargo, ND, police department:

Every city squad car is equipped today with a military-style assault rifle, and officers can don Kevlar helmets able to withstand incoming fire from battlefield-grade ammunition. And for that epic confrontation—if it ever occurs—officers can now summon a new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating turret. For now, though, the menacing truck is used mostly for training and appearances at the annual city picnic, where it’s been parked near the children’s bounce house. “Most people are so fascinated by it, because nothing happens here,” says Carol Archbold, a Fargo resident and criminal justice professor at North Dakota State University. “There’s no terrorism here.”

Ultimately, though, it’s not about the overkill of using such resources in relatively safe jurisdictions. Military equipment does probably provide some added margin of safety for officers in certain situations, which is definitely a good thing.

The more concerning problem – to my mind at least – is the increasing potential for over-reliance on technology as a replacement for using soft skills and de-escalation techniques to resolve incidents in ways that avoid using physical force altogether. Why waste time talking with protesters and trying to solve the problem peacefully when you can show up in intimidating military-style riot gear, riding on armored personnel carriers and blasting the crowd with nausea-inducing sound cannons that end things quickly and decisively.

Top 5 Mind Blowing Weapons Police Use on Protestors | Think Tank

Technology too often becomes a way to avoid doing difficult tasks and sharpening critical skills. And, dealing with human beings is among one of the most difficult, skill-based tasks out there.

As we go down this path of technology development, however, we can’t forget that criminal justice work of all types, including policing, is at it’s heart a human endeavour. To the extent that we allow technology to replace the need for human skills and the human touch, the public will actually have lost a substantial margin of safety and accountability.

What are your thoughts?

Share this post with all your favorite services!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

We’ve all seen surveillance cameras in public spaces – hanging under the eaves of local businesses, lashed to public towers, and staring back at us from the ceilings of airports and transit stations. Cameras are ubiquitous tools of our safety-inclined culture and, if one startup has its way, they’re about to go mobile, predictive, and social.

Security sign

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, a company called Knightscope is seeking funding for their version of a security robot, with the odd sounding name, K5 Autonomous Data Machine, that they assert will protect public spaces, like schools, from security threats.

School shootings, although rare, do generate a lot of fear – not to mention a profound sense of helplessness – among students, teachers, parents and others concerned about child safety.

That fear, warranted or not, also generates business opportunities for safety companies, like Knightscope, to develop and sell technologically-based security solutions.

The Knightscope K5 – Autonomous Data Machine

The K5 prototype can carry a wide variety of sensing technology, including optical character readers, standard video capture, thermal imaging, infrared, radar, and acoustical monitoring equipment that allow it to thoroughly scour its environment for security and safety threats.

It also appears from the above promotional video that facial recognition and license plate scanning will be options as well.

According to the Knightscope web site, the robot also uses a type of predictive algorithm and “crowdsourced social data sets” to make decisions about what to do once it detects a threat:

The Knightscope K5 Autonomous Data Machine utilizes a combination of autonomous robots and predictive analytics to provide a commanding but friendly physical presence while gathering important real-time on-site data with numerous sensors. Data collected through these sensors is processed through our predictive analytics engine, combined with existing business, government and crowdsourced social data sets, and subsequently assigned an alert level that determines when the community and the authorities should be notified of a concern. If an alert is pushed, the K5 machine will turn on all of its sensors to allow the entire community to review everything and also contribute important real-time information. Our approach alleviates any privacy concerns, engages the community on a social level to effectively crowdsource security, and provides an important feedback loop to the prediction engine.

Needless to say, privacy advocates are concerned about yet another method for monitoring, recording, and analyzing law-abiding citizens’ public behavior.

Given that we have yet to develop a clear consensus – not to mention a workable legal framework – regarding the balance between privacy and safety, the Knightscope project seems to be jumping the gun a bit, so to speak.

Perhaps if the developers installed a cynicism sensor on the K5, they’d detect the potential for public concern about yet more surveillance of an already overly watched society.

What are your thoughts about the K5? Is it the next step in public safety, or yet another tool of Big Brother?

Share this post with all your favorite services!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

While the debate over technological surveillance of public places rages on, additional ways of monitoring cities and their residents’ activities are quietly being developed.

One of these is EMPHASIS (Explosive Material Production Hidden Agile Search and Intelligence System), which is a comprehensive technological approach to sniffing out illegal drug and bomb-making operations – even in large cities – by monitoring chemical compounds in the sewer system.

Emphasis Concept

Emphasis Concept

According to a New Scientist article:

The sensors are designed to pick up signs of explosives precursors, such as chemical reagents and reaction breakdown products. Each sensor comprises a number of 10-centimetre-long devices called ion-selective electrodes that are submerged in the wastewater flow of a sewer. Only ions that come from the breakdown products of bomb-making chemicals can diffuse through the membranes in the electrodes, changing a resistor’s voltage in a telltale way. Software looks for patterns in the concentration of target ions. Above ground, an infrared laser carries out a sweep of an area looking for the spectra of target gas molecules.

EMPHASIS is a collaborative project involving partnerships between a number of private and public organizations, with overall coordination by the Swedish Defence Research Agency.

So, not only can a city be watched and listened to, it can now also be sniffed around the clock as well.

Have a great weekend!

Share this post with all your favorite services!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Some argue we don’t have a justice system at all.  Outcomes of the law, they say, are often not about what’s best for all involved, or even what’s fair and reasonable under the circumstances. Instead, what we have is a “legal” system. Any behavior is acceptable, as long as it comports with the letter of the law.

Nowhere is that more clear than in the recent debate over internet surveillance.

Mockup of Security Panel

I’ve posted before about Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the NSA and how that has freshened the debate over the government’s ability to intrude into the lives of innocent citizens around the world. That debate doesn’t hinge on justice in any way, not that the concept has even entered the conversation as far as I know. Instead, it turns on the “legality” of surveillance.

The difference may seem slight, but it’s actually quite profound.


While pundits, lawmakers, and talking heads quibble about whether Edward Snowden should be cast as a “hero” or a “traitor,” the NSA leak story raises a more fundamental issue for debate: The relationship between governments and citizens.


If media accounts can be  taken at face value, the PRISM program – while perhaps well intentioned – represents a significant threat to individual liberty and privacy, not only of U.S. citizens, but of law-abiding and peaceful people in countries around the world.

According to a follow-up article by Glenn Greenwald, it would appear that members of Congress were not fully aware of the extent or invasiveness of the NSA’s data collection, which raises the question of how any meaningful oversight could have been occurring, as some officials have claimed.

Regardless of where you come down on government surveillance in a philosophical sense, ask yourself this question: If the watchers are not able to watch those who are watching us, how can the public have any hope of engaging in reasoned debate on this issue?

What do we base our decisions about NSA intrusions upon? How do we evaluate what liberties we’re giving up and whether that’s acceptable to us or not?

This week’s videos feature a roundup of reporting from a variety of angles. Take a look and make up your own mind.

Edward Snowden’s interview with the Guardian

Marco Rubio’s response to the NSA leaks

Rand Paul responds to NSA’s testimony

Harry Reid: Lawmakers have had “every opportunity to be aware” of the NSA’s programs

Have a safe weekend and, for all the dads out there, have a Happy Father’s Day!

Want posts conveniently delivered to your email inbox? Just follow by clicking on the link in the left sidebar, or sign up for our monthly roundup of top blog posts.

Share this article with all your favorite services!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine