The United States military develops and has access to some of the most advanced technology in the world, which it applies to the battlefield to make military operations safer, more efficient and more effective.
With tools like drones, facial recognition software, advanced navigational systems and more, the military has made itself into a formidable target. Some technology, such as drones, is already a controversial subject in military hands, and disturbingly, more and more of it is making its way into the ranks of civilian police forces, raising uncomfortable questions about civil rights and the direction of American democracy.
Law enforcement agencies argue that these technologies increase their abilities to perform their jobs safely and efficiently, but the nature of policing in the United States is also changing. Historically, the primary goal of most domestic law enforcement agencies was one of public safety, with a focus on keeping members of the public safe, addressing crime issues and providing community assistance.
Today, many such agencies are heavily involved in anti-terrorism activities, and policing has become a slightly different creature. Writing for Der Spiegel, Dirk Kurbjuweit argues that the United States has become a nation consumed by paranoia, and nowhere is this reflected more clearly than in law enforcement services. Police forces of all shapes and sizes receive funding and assistance from agencies like the Department of Homeland Security to enact anti-terrorism campaigns and programs, for example, while community policing and similar services are cut. The focus on terrorism has changed attitudes in police departments and law enforcement agencies, normalizing the use of military equipment.
In San Diego, police officers have begun rolling out the use of facial recognition software. They say the software helps them quickly identify people they encounter during routine calls, but it does more than that: it pulls up all data associated with a given individual, including prior criminal history, address and other personal details. Officers can use the system without making a formal stop, requesting identification, or explaining why, which some people would argue constitutes a civil rights violation. Effectively, officers can perform a search without notice, warrant, or warning, on anyone, at any time.
This information is also retained in officers’ individual computer tablets unless they remember to delete it, which could lead to a major security breach. As occurred with the Transportation Safety Administration and screening technologies, the system is only as strong as the weakest human link, and such technology creates numerous opportunities for intentional or accidental leaks of data, personal information and more. Such biometric technologies also raise concerns about the possibility of creating government databases that track all residents and citizens of the country, limiting privacy substantially.
The police argue that those with nothing to hide don’t need to worry about the technology and linked database, a common response to security and civil rights concerns. Yet, as has been proved with other rollouts of biometrics and related technologies, even those with nothing to hide have something to worry about: their privacy. The more information government databases compile about people and make available through mobile networks like this one, the more people risk having information exposed without their consent — imagine such databases in the hands of identity thieves, for example, or employers who might discriminate on the basis of past criminal records.
Alarmingly, facial recognition software can fail as much as 20% of the time, which means that police could be taking the wrong people into custody, drawing incorrect conclusions about people they encounter on the street, and potentially making fatally bad choices. If, for example, biometric identification tags a man as a person with a violent criminal record and he reached for his wallet to provide his identification, police might mistakenly believe he was reaching for a weapon and seriously injure or kill him.
Such technologies are spreading across police forces in the United States, often without public notice, warning, or fanfare. Increasingly, they raise an important question: is the vision of freedom and democracy being trampled under the boot of paranoia?
Photo credit: Elvert Barnes.