“Big Data” police-state surveillance the new norm: Information from multiple sources (on any citizen) now being combined to generate a “criminal risk assessment algorithm”
01/01/2018 / By David Williams / Comments
“Big Data” police-state surveillance the new norm: Information from multiple sources (on any citizen) now being combined to generate a “criminal risk assessment algorithm”

The emergence of “big data” has been quite the revelation for many different industries. Whereas information used to be sparse and relatively hard to obtain, now it is available in such large quantities that specialized equipment and algorithms are needed to process them. The police industry is just one of the many industries that are being disrupted by big data, and now researchers have begun to look into exactly how much it could change things.

With the presence of big data, performing police work becomes much easier, and solving crimes can be done that much quicker. But at the same time, this also means that the police can now have more data on you than they ever have before. It’s a kind of double-edged sword; one that’s recognized by Sarah Brayne, a sociologist and research associate at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to Brayne, there are a couple of ways of looking at it. “On one hand, I think it has the potential to reduce some problematic inequities in policing, such as the un-particularized suspicion of racial minorities,” said Brayne. “But I think as it’s currently implemented, there can be a few negative consequences for equality, and it can lead to a lot more marginalization and distrust.”

The sociologist approach

Brayne conducted sociologist research that involved interviewing and observing 75 police officers as well as civilian employees of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The LAPD is known for being a pioneer in data analytic policing, and the goal of the research is to find key ways in which the police and other employees are using big data — obtained in-house or otherwise — to “assess criminal risks, predict crime, and surveil communities,” according to a report.


What Brayne found to be “the most transformative aspect” of it all was that the police are now able to access much more information on individuals, whether they are suspects or not, simply because of the availability of big data. She believes that it’s a trend that began in the wake of 9/11, which is said to be viewed as a sort of “information sharing failure” by the intelligence community. Now’s it’s practically a given that local police departments have a set budget for collecting all types of new data, as they are said to be viewed as the front line on the war against terror, according to Brayne.

For the most part, the push for the usage of big data among the police force has resulted in a lot of positives. For instance, it can help send real-time alerts using information from license plate tracking, as well as from using data sourced from private data brokers who have obtained their information from private businesses. However, the all-encompassing nature of the data collection activities that individuals are subjected to doesn’t always result in information that’s as objective as possible.

Big data risks

With the help of big data, individuals can now be subjected to a criminal risk assessment using an algorithm based on multiple pieces of information. In some division, a point system exists, and it’s based on things like criminal history, police stops, arrests, parole, and probation statuses. Individuals who have a high number of points are more likely to be stopped by police, which leads to them getting yet another point.

When you consider this, you end up in a feedback loop that means certain individuals who are already under suspicion will be put under even more surveillance. And that could end up with them being in more trouble later on, according to Brayne. She warns that while the police aren’t exactly arresting individuals based on all the pre-crime data that they have collected about them, all that information keeps racking up and “disproportionally benefits” those who are in positions of social advantage.

Read more about surveillance at PrivacyWatch.news.

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