The concept of “policing in the 21st Century” is not only the implementation of a range of high-tech surveillance measures, including biometrics, but apparently also involves keeping it a complete secret from citizens … and even from their elected representatives.
At issue is one of the most controversial aspects of modern policing: the notion that if police can sweep all information into centralized databases and let an artificial intelligence algorithm do the investigative work of making connections in the data stream, then crimes can be prevented before they happen — pre-crime.
Despite an ongoing debate about potential errors in current systems, and even the legitimacy of predictive algorithms altogether (See: “Predictive Algorithms Are No Better At Telling The Future Than A Crystal Ball”), police departments across the nation are rolling out various versions of this technology. However, even worse than citizens apparently having little to no say about what their tax dollars are building, it is increasingly coming to light that these programs are being used without informing citizens at all.
I previously reported about the difficulty that journalists and activists have had in the notoriously police state infested Chicago, with the Chicago PD even refusing FOIA requests for details from well-known media like The Chicago Sun Times.
Now, in an explosive report from The Verge, reporter Ali Winston details how innocent residents of New Orleans might have been swept up in a dragnet of data collection without their knowledge. According to Winston, the private global data collection and analysis corporation, Palantir Technologies, helped launch a secret software program in 2012 with New Orleans police to track connections between gang members. As Winston rightly highlights, Palantir was founded by the CIA’s venture capital firm, making the current findings exponentially worse for those who value civil liberties. Moreover, Winston documents the lengths that the partnership went to cover up the program’s disclosure, even to city council members:
…the program escaped public notice, partly because Palantir established it as a philanthropic relationship with the city through Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s signature NOLA For Life program. Thanks to its philanthropic status, as well as New Orleans’ “strong mayor” model of government, the agreement never passed through a public procurement process.
In fact, key city council members and attorneys contacted by The Verge had no idea that the city had any sort of relationship with Palantir, nor were they aware that Palantir used its program in New Orleans to market its services to another law enforcement agency for a multimillion-dollar contract.
Even James Carville, the political operative instrumental in bringing about Palantir’s collaboration with NOPD, said that the program was not public knowledge. “No one in New Orleans even knows about this, to my knowledge,” Carville said.
Carville went on to say that he orchestrated the partnership between a domestic police force and a company known for Pentagon intelligence work in overseas warzones, based solely on his own idea that “it was a case of morality. Young people were shooting each other, and the public wasn’t as involved as they should have been.” That’s about as frightening an admission to the justification for fascism as I’ve come across — and no one involved is even elected.
While specifics of who might have been affected by the program cannot be detailed due to the level of secrecy, based on what The Verge has compiled, they suggest that the data collection is far too comprehensive to fully eliminate the innocent from the dragnet:
Palantir’s prediction model in New Orleans used an intelligence technique called social network analysis (or SNA) to draw connections between people, places, cars, weapons, addresses, social media posts, and other indicia in previously siloed databases. Think of the analysis as a practical version of a Mark Lombardi painting that highlights connections between people, places, and events. After entering a query term — like a partial license plate, nickname, address, phone number, or social media handle or post — NOPD’s analyst would review the information scraped by Palantir’s software and determine which individuals are at the greatest risk of either committing violence or becoming a victim, based on their connection to known victims or assailants.
I encourage everyone to read the full article at The Verge, as it offers a treasure trove of details about the background of Palantir, their connection to other police forces around the country, and the fact that not a single oversight committee appears to be aware of what data has been collected in New Orleans, on whom, and whether or not there has been any framework developed to ensure that innocent people will not be exploited by their predictive policing programs. Without the proper transparency, we are only left with this assurance from Palantir on their website, already made laughable by what little we know.
We design technology to help institutions protect liberty
Analytic technology, especially in the hands of powerful institutions that hold large volumes of data, can pose serious risks to privacy and civil liberties. That’s why we build privacy-protective capabilities into our products, help customers understand how to use them responsibly, and work with advocacy groups and the policy community on how technology can be used to protect privacy interests today and in the future. We have always been, and continue to be, committed to helping organizations get value out of their data while protecting sensitive information from misuse and abuse.
Every police department should be open to requests from residents to explain their conduct; let’s hope that the exemplary work from The Verge and sharing this information can help with that endeavor.
Image credit: Phys.org