The Risk to Civil Liberties of Fighting Crime With Big Data Bits
By QUENTIN HARDY
Nov 6 2016
SAN FRANCISCO — People talk about online security as a cat-and-mouse game of good guys and bad guys. It’s true for good old-fashioned crime, too.
Technology, particularly rapid analysis and sharing of data, is helping the police be more efficient and predict possible crimes. Some would argue that it has even contributed to an overall drop in crime in recent years.
But this type of technology also raises issues of civil liberties, as digital information provided by social media or the sensors of the internet of things is combined with criminal data by companies that sell this information to law enforcement agencies.
The American Civil Liberties Union, citing reports that the Chicago Police Department used a computer analysis to create a “heat list” that unfairly associated innocent people with criminal behavior, has warned about the dangers of the police using big data. Even companies that make money doing this sort of work warn that it comes with civil rights risks.
“We’re heading to a world where every trash can has an identifier. Even I get shocked at the comprehensiveness of what data providers sell,” said Courtney Bowman, who leads the privacy and civil liberties practice at Palantir Technologies, a company in Palo Alto, Calif., that sells data analysis tools. He has lectured on the hazards of predictive policing and the need to prove in court that predictive models follow understandable logic and do not reinforce stereotypes.
Some of this shift to data-based policing seems to be a matter of simple automation. The RELX Group, formerly Reed Elsevier, has for some years been buying and building up databases of police information. One product, called Coplogic, is used by 5,000 police departments in the United States.
Coplogic automates filling out accident reports. When a police officer enters a license plate number, many other fields on the report, like the registered address associated with the car, are automatically filled in. The company says this can halve the time an officer spends in traffic filing a report.
Cities can also use the service to identify their most dangerous traffic spots or, in much the way driving maps predict the fastest route home, predict where road repairs are needed.
“This frees up time and resources for higher-value activities, like predictive policing,” said Roy Marler, vice president of Coplogic. “The state can use this data to get federal funding for roadway improvements.”
RELX has become something like the Ticketmaster of insurance reporting. The company processes about 500,000 requests a month for digital accident reports, mostly from insurance companies, charging a $7 “convenience fee” to provide the information. Cities also receive a cut of the $7 for the distribution.
Thomson Reuters and Dun & Bradstreet also do a big business selling data to law enforcement.
In much the way combining different databases has helped people who place online ads gain insight and make predictions, traffic data now provides a window into crime.
“Criminals are citizens, too,” said William Hatfield, a former Secret Service agent working with RELX. “Even with an outstanding warrant, their car is their pride and joy. When they file with an insurance company, they give accurate information about their address that police can use to find them.”
Sharing data, both among the parts of a big police department and between the police and the private sector, “is a force multiplier,” he said.