Public photography April 24, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
An article in PhotographyIsNotACrime argues that the police response to the Boston Marathon bombings reveals hypocrisy regarding public photos (hat tip to Bruce Schneier). Since 9/11, taking photos of buildings or public spaces has been regarded sometimes with suspicion: Perhaps the photos are preparations for a bombing plot. However, the police in the Boston Marathon bombing case solicited public photographs as a part of their investigation. Isn’t that hypocritical?
Adding to the hypocrisy is that these same authorities will most likely start clamping down on citizens with cameras more than ever once the smoke clears and we once again become a nation of paranoids willing to give up our freedoms in exchange for some type of perceived security.
Read in this general way, this policy does seem hypocritical: It is ironic that police could both repudiate and advocate public photography, and do so in a way that benefits them at the expense of photographers. However, is it really police policy to prohibit all photography in public, e.g., taking pictures of family members as they cross the line at a marathon? I doubt it, and I don’t suppose that police will be cracking down on such things in the coming weeks.
Douglas McCormick at IEEE Spectrum notes that facial recognition software played no role in the identification of the bombing suspects. Even though the suspects had drivers’ photos on record, the software did not connect them with photos of people at the bombing site. That was accomplished by police. However, police are adopting more automatic, visual surveillance equipment, e.g., New York City’s Domain Awareness System. This system will include cameras in public places and entry or exit points to the City, tracking each vehicle that enters the city until it leaves.
(So, next time you visit NYC, smile! Or don’t–it screws up the biometric assessment.)
In any event, I think that the situation reveals not so much police hypocrisy as a general ambivalence towards the gift of ubiquitous picture snapping. Most of us enjoy taking pictures of all sorts in public spaces and sharing them with others. We also fear people who use this capability against us. The question becomes: Who do we trust with it, and to what extent?
Police cyborgs February 22, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
TASER – the makers of the electric shock gun – have introduced a mini-cam called Axon Flex that police can wear while on duty. The unit can be mounted on the sun glasses or other headgear worn by police and records video of what the officer sees. The camera can hold up to two hours of video. Once it is full, or the officer is ready, the video can be uploaded to a cloud storage facility where it is stored in encrypted form.
(Robert Cudmore/Wikimedia commons)
The aim of the system is to allow police brass to monitor the activities of their officers in the field:
Being able to film contentious encounters may well assist BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] when dealing with future brutality allegations. In addition, providing the cameras to individual officers is a savvy community relations move due to the perception that the officers themselves will be monitored.
With video available for review, it is hoped that accusations of misconduct against officers can be settled expeditiously and without lengthy and costly legal proceedings.
Adoption of the devices seems to enjoy support from officers, who expect their behavior to be exonerated quickly when video evidence of their actions is readily available:
The shooting, tragedy that it was, was speedily cleared by his superiors because the entire incident was captured on tape. “It happened at noon on a Wednesday,” Sergeant Davis said. “I first watched it with the police psychiatrist on Thursday morning. I got out of there and I was cleared for work.”
It also enjoys support from civil rights advocates, who like the idea that the police will be monitored:
Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the speech, privacy and technology project at the American Civil Liberties Union, was enthusiastic about the prospect of body cameras on law officers.
“We don’t want the government watching the people when there is no reason, but we do support the people watching the government,” he said. “There are concerns about police editing or deleting files, but overall the cost and benefits make it worthwhile.”
As noted here, there are concerns over who will have access to the video and who will be able to edit it. After all, video feed could be selectively edited to create or reinforce a one-sided interpretation of some incident. In addition, there are concerns about whether or not the data will really be secure against intrusions. I can only imagine that hackers would enjoy taking a look at some of the footage uploaded from police cameras.
Also, there is the issue of outsourcing the storage and processing of this footage to a private company, Evidence.com. What rights will they have to the data? What happens if the company goes bust or is bought by another outfit?
Finally, mounting cameras on police officers could encourage their bosses to view them as some kind of smart CCTV system. Perhaps some junior officer will be given the assignment of standing in a public space and moving his head from side to side so that the people present there and their activities will be recorded for later review, perhaps using facial recognition software. Also, will some police officers find ways to defeat the cameras when it is convenient for them to do so? Glasses and hats can get knocked off in an altercation, for example. In any event, it will be interesting to see how the use of these devices develops.
Defaults and child pornography February 17, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Canada has been the scene of some controversy this week as the Federal government has introduced Bill C-30, aka the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act”. Michael Geist provides an overview of the proposed legislation. In a nutshell, the Act gives police additional powers to obtain information about Internet users from their ISPs without a warrant.
The additional powers proposed in the bill are controversial in their own right. What propelled the issue onto the front page, so to speak, was the comments of the Public Safety Minister, Vic Toews (above), who is tabling the bill. In the House of Commons, Minister Toews responded as follows to a question from an Opposition member about the bill:
As technology evolves, many criminal activities, such as the distribution of child pornography, become much easier. We are proposing measures to bring our laws into the 21st century and to provide the police with the lawful tools that they need. He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.
As Geist notes, the Minister has been saying similar things in defense of the bill for a while now. However, this latest slur sparked an angry response, leading the government to backpeddle somewhat on the bill.
The Minister’s remark provides a particularly crass example of an established argument for increasing police surveillance in society. Briefly put, the argument is that transparency increases security by making it harder for criminals to hide their misbehavior. Only criminals, the argument continues, would want to hide what they are doing.
A problem with this argument is that it overlooks a problem raised by transparency, which is the problem that innocent behavior can be mistaken for criminal activity, leading to the harassment and punishment of innocent people. If someone enters the expression “child pornography” into the search window on their browser, for example, then are they searching for child pornography, or preparing for a class about crime on the Internet? One role of privacy on the Internet is to protect innocent citizens from official suspicion. Police already enjoy considerable powers of surveillance and cooperation from Internet Service Providers. By extending their powers, the bill moves towards changing the default from innocent until proven guilty to its opposite. No one is trying to block legitimate police action against child pornography; it is simply that there are other important issues at stake.
(It is worth noting that the name of the Bill was changed at the last minute from its previous name, the “Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act”. The Bill increases police powers in a general way, and is not focussed specifically on child pornography. This observation suggests that the issue of child pornography was raised not so much to help vulnerable children but to blacken the character of the bill’s critics.)
Contrast this situation with the following: Researchers at the University of Worcester in England have shown that digital photos of children posted to Flickr could expose them to unwanted attention. The researchers noted that photos posted to this photo-sharing site (like many others) contain geotagging data that describe where (and when) the photo was taken. This information can be gleaned by anyone viewing the photos and combined with other data from the Internet to produce an accurate idea of where the child lives. Whether this data puts the children at considerable risk from predators is unclear.
However, there may be a straightforward way to mitigate any risk: Change Flickr so that it identifies photos of children being uploaded and strips out the geotagging data by default. A pop-up dialog would allow users to override this default if they so choose. Such a solution would focus specifically on the problem at hand and would not create undue problems for those uploading photos without children pictured in them. (Well, the issue of identifying which photos deserve special treatment could involve some subtleties.)
In any event, these examples illustrate the importance of defaults in handling sensitive issues such as child pornography. It seems unobjectionable to request that people consider the information they post online about their children, by default. It is objectionable, however, to identify all Canadians as potential child pornographers, by default, especially in legislation that does not seem to be designed to address this problem specifically.
Flashing lights January 11, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Scott recently commented on the use of Twitter by drivers to warn others of RIDE checkpoints. Police do not like this use of Twitter because they regard it as obstruction of justice. After all, RIDE programs are a legitimate bit of police business and, furthermore, are designed to protect the public from drunk drivers. Even so, as Scott points out, it is not clear that authorities have the right to censor or censure people for using Twitter in this way because of their right to freedom of expression.
I am reminded of a similar controversy over drivers who flash their headlights to warn others of speed traps. In a recent case in the UK, a driver was successfully prosecuted for obstruction of justice for doing so:
Presiding magistrate Jean Ellerton told him: ’We found that your flashing of your headlights was an obstruction, we found that you knew this action would cause vehicles to slow down and cause other motorists to avoid the speed trap and avoid prosecution.’
In Florida, driver Eric Campbell is suing the State after being ticketed for flashing his lights after spotting a radar trap. He was given a ticket apparently on the ground of a law that prohibits the use of lights in imitation of emergency vehicles (which often use flashing lights). He fought the ticket in court and got it dismissed but is suing on the grounds that the real intent of the ticket was to suppress his freedom of speech in communicating with other drivers.
Here in Ontario, there is a similar law that prohibits drivers from flashing their lights to imitate emergency vehicles. The article also states that there is no specific law that forbids Ontarians from flashing lights to each other to warn of speed traps. The rationale for having no such law seems to stem from considerations of freedom of expression:
“It’s not an offence under the Highway Traffic Act in Ontario,” confirms Sgt. Cam Woolley of the Ontario Provincial Police. “Drivers are free to communicate with each other.”
“Ever since speeding laws were enacted, motorists have been warning each other,” says Woolley. “Truckers use a lot of signals. They also warn each other on CB radio.”
Woolley says the police themselves often warn drivers of speed traps by announcing “hot zones” on radio stations, or by using pixelboards or fixed signs to identify school zones and other areas where radar may be present.
In fact, the OPP recently reverted to a traditional black-and-white paint scheme on their vehicles so that cruisers are easier to spot.
“Visibility is a key thing that we do,” he says. “We want motorists to see our presence and act lawfully.”
Nevertheless, police do sometimes hand out tickets in response to the practice, even though they may well get thrown out in court afterwards. In a recent incident, a Guelph driver was pulled over for warning other drivers and found to be driving with expired plates and driver’s license. Police exalted in their victory:
In a media release, Guelph Police seemed to savour the rare triumph over someone who tries to warn other motorists about speed traps, noting “it doesn’t pay to stand out in a crowd.” The release was titled “Good Samaritan Warns the Wrong Motorist.”
So, we have a mosaic of policies and practices.
Much of the debate on this issue centers on whether flashing high beams to warn of speed traps and the like should be compared to their use to warn of road hazards (e.g., your headlights are off, or there is an obstacle on the road ahead of you), which is the view of motorist advocates, or should be compared to communications in a criminal gang (e.g. the lookout who warns the other burglars that the cops are coming), which is the view of some police.
Whatever the case, there is another matter to consider here. I have to admit that I tend to signal other drivers when I see a trap. Also, I enjoy it when others signal me on the road. The exchange of warnings forms one of the few opportunities for positive social interactions among drivers, who so often figure otherwise as mere obstacles in one’s path. Driving can be an isolating and technostressing experience, so I think that many drivers simply crave the chance to do something they can feel positive about. Perhaps we should be thinking of was of designing roads and cars so that there are more opportunities of this sort, at least ones that do not distract drivers from the road.
Police and pepper spray November 23, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
One of the unintended consequences, I imagine, of the Occupy Wall Street movement is a boost in sales of pepper spray for police. For example, Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis police was recently filmed liberally applying pepper spray to Occupiers at the Davis campus. The spray is intended to provide a non-lethal option for police who are engaged in crowd control or faced with a potentially violent person to deal with.
One of the concerns with pepper spray has been escalation of its use. That is, it seems as though pepper spray is being used not only as an alternative to a police baton but as an alternative to lesser forms of verbal or physical intervention. As this Wired article puts it:
Indeed, while law enforcement scholars unanimously acknowledge that, on a per-violent-incident basis, pepper spray results in fewer injuries than direct physical violence, research suggests that having pepper spray could lead to higher numbers of violent incidents.
Why is that?
The Wired article considers how the presence of pepper spray may affect the psychology of the police officers who have it. One suggestion seems to be that police opt for pepper spray simply because it is immediate and effective. By design, the spray is overwhelming and would tend to quickly end a confrontation in favour of the officer. “If it is there, they will use it.”
Another possibility is that pepper spray changes how police officers approach a situation. Criminologists Paul Friday and Richard Lumb are quoted as asking rhetorically:
“Do officers become more assertive in suspect confrontational situations when they are ‘armed’ with an additional tool? Does the possession of OC spray unreasonably increase the sense of self-confidence and security and thereby create a self-fulfilling prophecy of threat?”
I guess what this means is that having pepper spray in the arsenal could make officers feel less of a need to compromise or take it easy in a confrontation. This feeling, in turn, may tend to raise the “temperature” of an interaction, making it more likely that a situation will turn violent enough to justify the use of pepper spray. This would be an example of technology as more than just a tool. This explanation seems plausible, although it does not explain incidents like that of Lt. Pike, who was clearly faced with a non-violent situation.
Criminologist Roger Dunham argues that there may be some social psychological factor involved:
“In their culture, it’s important to have authority. Most policemen will say that the only thing they have to protect them is authority, and they’re very sensitive to people who do not respect their authority,” he said. “When an officer gets on the scene, the number-one thing they’re supposed to do is take control” — and that dynamic is heightened when they know that other police will judge their actions.
On this view, the possession of pepper spray is socially technostressing (to expand on the concept as defined by Ron Westrum). That is, officers are sensitive to their status as the people in charge of a situation. This sensitivity is heightened when other officers are present who may judge an officer as not sufficiently assertive. Using pepper spray provides an officer with a ready means of showing who is in charge and thus relieving this form of social stress.
Another possibility discussed by Mike Masnick and due to Bob Ostertag of UC Davis is that police forces are becoming increasingly militarized. That is, police officers are becoming more like soldiers, troops in the “war on drugs”, “war on terror”, or perhaps America’s supposed class war. On this view, the police have been caught up in an increasingly confrontational view that social groups in the US have adopted towards one another. As we all increasingly view the social order as coming unglued, the police feel more intensely the pressure to control people who seem to threaten it.
There may be something to this suggestion. Lt. Pike seems to brandish his pepper spray theatrically, playing to the crowd in a way. I get the impression that he was putting on a performance that he wanted others to observe and learn from: “Don’t make trouble, or this will happen to you!” I am not sure that militarization is at work in this instance, but Lt. Pike seems to regard himself as simply part of a larger social situation, starting with his audience.
Any or all of these explanations may contain some truth. It would be easy to speculate about additional factors as well. Perhaps police officers are experiencing the effects of job deskilling. Crude as it is, perhaps pepper spray acts like a kind of negotiation-in-a-can, reducing the need for officers to master the art of verbal de-escalation, for example. At any rate, pepper spray seems to illustrate the observation that even a relatively simple design can have effects that are unexpected and hard to understand.
On the lighter side, such as it is, I draw your attention to this display of viral art depicting Lt. Pike and his pepper spray. It may make your eyes water, but in a good way. Here is my favourite:
(Disclosure: As a philosopher, watching Socrates get pepper sprayed right before drinking hemlock seems perversely funny to me.)
E-tickets July 12, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Here is an interesting little note from the Canadian Press about e-tickets. The term “e-ticket” probably makes you think “airplane ticket”, right? In this case, though, an e-ticket is a new way that police have of writing up wayward members of the public. That’s right! Instead of writing up a ticket by hand, police will be able to print one off.
(Image courtesy of US Navy via Wikimedia commons.)
There are two main advantages of e-tickets:
- Tickets can be issued more efficiently:
Officers will simply scan a driver’s licence on a computer inside their cruisers, then print out a copy for the driver while the ticket is being electronically sent to the courts.
- Tickets are more likely to stick:
[Winnipeg Police Inspector] Mr. LeMaistre says typing the tickets could also cut down on spelling errors and poor handwriting that sometimes can get tickets thrown out of court.
Is this development a good thing? Some critics argue that it is not:
Len Eastoe of Traffic Ticket Experts says it’s a big negative for the public as officers will be able to issue more tickets.
This argument recalls the argument about photo radar, which many critics feel is used by police as a cash grab, that is, to generate revenues through ticketing lots of minor moving violations. Of course, an e-ticketing system does address one of the critiques of photo radar, namely the absence of a police officer. That is, photo radar has been criticized for being automatic, no officer present, and thus omitting the opportunity for a police officer to exercise discretion or to watch for more egregious traffic violations such as texting-while-driving. Since the e-ticketing system is not automatic, this argument cannot be applied against it.
I commented in this blog post last year about a ticket-processing system that was so allegedly user-unfriendly and inefficient that police would refrain from writing tickets just so they would not have to use it. That situation seemed like a bad thing, so it seems odd to frown upon police having a more efficient system. Still, if the new system is expensive, it is easy to imagine that it could cause officers to be employed like human photo radar units, hiding behind bushes and passing out tickets for minor but profitable misdeeds.