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Ethical frontiers: The unintended consequences of surveillance technologies

Law enforcement agencies must understand the potential pitfalls and mitigate them with policy, training and ethical guidelines

Police State

Technologies like ALPR can be a helpful partner for law enforcement, but agencies should be aware of their potential for misuse, and mitigate against that with strong policy, training and ethical guidelines.

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Technology has always been a double-edged sword, offering benefits and risks to society. Throughout history, there have been examples of technological innovations that outpaced ethical considerations, leading to negative consequences for human rights, privacy and social justice. For instance, the invention of the printing press enabled the spread of knowledge and literacy, but also facilitated propaganda and censorship. The development of nuclear energy provided a source of clean power, but also created weapons of mass destruction. The emergence of the internet and social media revolutionized communication and information, but also enabled cybercrime and misinformation.

The ethical dilemmas of ALPR and similar technologies

Today, one of the most controversial and impactful technologies in law enforcement is automated license plate readers (ALPRs), which are devices that capture and store license plate data from passing vehicles. ALPRs can be mounted on patrol cars, traffic poles, bridges or other locations and can scan thousands of plates per minute, creating a massive database of vehicle movements and locations. ALPR can be used for various purposes, such as identifying stolen cars, locating victims of kidnapping and human trafficking, locating suspects, enforcing traffic laws and investigating crimes. They also can enhance public safety and efficiency by providing valuable data insights on traffic patterns for efficiency of flow and safety. They can offer suggestions for mass transit and bus stop locations and traffic routes around major events like sports games.

However, ALPRs also pose significant ethical challenges and risks, such as:

Invasion of privacy: ALPRs can track and record the movements and habits of innocent drivers, creating a detailed profile of their personal lives, associations and activities. This data can be accessed by unauthorized parties, hacked, leaked or sold, compromising the privacy and security of individuals.

Discrimination and bias: ALPRs can be used to target or monitor certain groups or communities based on their race, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation, resulting in discrimination and profiling. ALPR can also generate false positives, misidentifying drivers or vehicles, leading to wrongful arrests, overpolicing or harassment.

Lack of transparency and accountability: ALPRs can operate without the knowledge or consent of the public, creating a hidden and unregulated surveillance system. ALPRs can also lack oversight and audit mechanisms, making it difficult to track and prevent misuse or abuse of the data.

ALPRs aren’t the only technology that can have significant ethical implications for law enforcement and the public. Other similar technologies include:

Facial recognition: Facial recognition is a biometric technology that can identify or verify the identity of a person based on their facial features. Facial recognition can be used to enhance security, find missing persons or verify identities. However, facial recognition can also infringe on privacy, generate false matches or enable discrimination and bias based on race, gender or age.

Body-worn cameras: Body-worn cameras are devices that can record audio and video of interactions between police officers and the public. Body-worn cameras can be used to increase transparency, accountability and trust, as well as provide evidence and protect officers from false accusations. However, body-worn cameras can also raise privacy concerns, create operational challenges or influence the behavior and decision-making of officers and civilians.

Social media monitoring: Social media monitoring is the process of collecting, analyzing and using information from social media platforms, such as Facebook, X or Instagram. Social media monitoring can be used to gather intelligence, prevent crime or identify suspects or witnesses. However, social media monitoring can also violate privacy, freedom of expression or due process rights, as well as expose users to cyberthreats or online harassment.

These technologies, like ALPRs, can offer many benefits and opportunities for law enforcement, but they also pose serious ethical dilemmas and risks that need to be carefully considered and addressed. Therefore, it is essential that law enforcement agencies develop and follow policies, training and ethical guidelines that respect the rights, dignity and safety of all stakeholders involved in the use of these technologies. Further these policies need to be transparent to the public and authored with its input.

The importance of policy, training and ethical guidelines

To address these ethical dilemmas and mitigate the risks of ALPRs and similar technologies, law enforcement agencies need to adopt and implement policies, training and ethical guidelines that ensure the responsible and lawful use of these tools. Some of the best practices and recommendations include:

  • Setting clear and specific goals and targets for using ALPRs and restricting the data collection and retention to those goals.
  • Getting legal approval and public support for using ALPRs and letting the public know about the extent, methods and protections of the technology.
  • Securing the data from unauthorized access, alteration or sharing, and destroying the data when it is not needed or relevant anymore.
  • Providing frequent training and education for officers and staff on the ethical and legal consequences of using ALPRs and other technologies.
  • Establishing oversight and audit systems to track and assess the performance and impact of ALPRs and other technologies and deal with any complaints or concerns.
  • Forming ethical principles and values that direct the decision-making and behavior of officers and staff when using ALPRs and other technologies.
  • Identifying technology bias and training methodologies to increase human-centered focus on integrity instead of just following computerized suggestions.
  • It is important to know when to stop, how much data is excessive and what the best methods for data retention plans are – and the public should have a say in this.

Hypothetical scenarios and how they are addressed

To illustrate the potential unintended consequences and how they are addressed, here are some hypothetical scenarios involving ALPRs and other technologies:

Scenario 1: A police officer abuses ALPR technology to stalk and intimidate his former girlfriend, who has a court order to keep him away. He harasses her at her job and intimidates her. The ALPR data is presented as proof of his misconduct. Policies and access must involve tracking and notifications for unauthorized access to ensure limited and accountable use. Any access requires lawful and valid reasons before data inquiry which are tracked in the system.

Scenario 2: A journalist obtains ALPR data from a local police department through a public records request. They examine the data to see how often the mayor visits a new controversial planned development and important developers. They write an exposé that harms the mayor’s reputation and career. Agencies must understand that all data collected is public information and government activities are subject to disclosure.

Scenario 3: A police agency’s ALPR database is hacked, and millions of license plate records are stolen. The hacker sells the data on the dark web to criminal groups that use it for robberies, extortions, auto theft and money laundering. The police find out about the breach after a year and start an investigation. Data security requires cybersecurity and encryption measures to stop future breaches and regular audits. Agencies need to keep up with data security and limit data storage to lower risk.

Strategies for law enforcement agencies to remain flexible and responsive

As technology evolves and society changes, law enforcement agencies need to remain flexible and responsive to the new challenges and opportunities that arise. Some strategies that can help them achieve this include:

  • Consulting with various stakeholders and experts from different domains and viewpoints, such as academia, industry, civil society and human rights, to benefit from their knowledge and expertise and promote cooperation and confidence. Department policies have to rely on a network of partners beyond the agency to ensure success.
  • Keeping up with the latest and emerging technologies and their effects on law enforcement and society, and revising their policies, training and ethical standards as needed. Lower the tendency to rely on legal rationale and enhance the alignment with public policy and morality.
  • Engaging with the public and the communities they work with, and responding to their issues and needs related to how technology is used in law enforcement.
  • Trying out new and creative ways of using technology to improve their performance and productivity, while remaining accountable and transparent.
  • Creating a culture of learning and improvement and promoting a feeling of ethical duty and professionalism among officers and staff.

Technology can be a helpful partner or a dangerous enemy for law enforcement, depending on how it is applied and controlled. ALPRs and other technologies can provide great advantages for cracking cases, enhancing security and saving lives, but they can also create serious moral problems and potential negative outcomes for privacy, human rights and social justice. Law enforcement agencies need to adopt a comprehensive and forward-looking approach, not only using new technologies to overcome operational difficulties, but also foreseeing and addressing the broader consequences for society. By doing so, they can ensure that technology contributes to the public good, rather than compromises it.

Philip Lukens served as the Chief of Police in Alliance, Nebraska from December 2020 until his resignation in September 2023. He began his law enforcement career in Colorado in 1995. He is known for his innovative approach to policing. As a leading expert in AI, he has been instrumental in pioneering the use of artificial intelligence in tandem with community policing, significantly enhancing police operations and optimizing patrol methods.

His focus on data-driven strategies and community safety has led to significant reductions in crime rates and use of force. Under Lukens’ leadership, his agency received the Victims Services Award in 2022 from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He is a member of the IACP-PPSEAI Committee - Human Trafficking Committee, PERF, NIJ LEADS, Future Policing Institute Fellow and ASEBP Board Member. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Criminology from Colorado Technical University. He has also earned multiple certifications, including Northwestern School of Police Staff and Command, PERF’s Senior Management Institute for Police, Supervisor Institute with FBI LEEDA, and IACP’s Leadership in Police Organizations.

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