There is good reason to believe that predictive policing software simply reinforces past, biased information to predict crime. It is certainly under heavy scrutiny, as it seeks to predict in advance exactly who will commit crimes. It’s the subject of dystopian fiction, but nevertheless it’s being implemented in several of America’s largest cities.
Why? Largely because the Justice Department has been giving out grants to local police agencies to install it. Are predictive policing tools being assessed for their compliance with the constitution and civil rights laws? How many cities are using it? How often are the software’s predictions correct? How many people have been jailed based on an assessment that they were about to commit a crime?
We don’t know. In fact, when a group of lawmakers asked the Justice Department for a full accounting last year, it became clear that the Justice Department doesn’t know, either. The DOJ was unable to provide a full accounting for the grants given out and completely ignored the lawmakers’ questions.
What we do know is that predictive policing software tends to direct more police resources toward Black and Latino neighborhoods, which are often already over-policed. Indeed, the software focuses its predictions on the poorest residents of those neighborhoods in a way that has been described as “relentless.”
We know that predictions from California-based PredPol cover dozens of cities, with as many as one in every 33 U.S. residents affected. Yet there is currently no way to find out whether PredPol or other predictive policing programs even work, much less safeguard civil liberties.
The feds are using a controversial phone-cracking program, too
Sometimes, it seems like our civil liberties are last in a long line of federal priorities. Recently, the Intercept reported that federal agencies have begun widely using Cellebrite, a tool that allows law enforcement to get past your phone’s locks.
According to the Intercept, virtually all federal agencies with policing powers are using Cellebrite. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is engaging in phone cracking in order to enforce environmental offenses and even hunting without a license. Is that really necessary? Or is breaking into a citizen’s phone an overreaction to a hunting license issue?
“There are few guidelines on how departments can use our data once they get it,” says a spokesperson for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “We can’t allow every federal department to turn into its own spy agency.”
Yet the use of Cellebrite by federal law enforcement has faced little pushback.
It’s time to push back. Our civil liberties are being eroded quickly by technology that seems intended to bypass them. How do you want to be policed?